ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays pitched well and played sterling defense, as they typically do, throughout their season-opening sweep of the Orioles this weekend. They found big hits when they needed them, another staple of last year’s 100-win club, and Brandon Lowe homered during Sunday’s 8-0 win at Tropicana Field like he did 39 times a year ago.
Sweeping the Orioles might have felt familiar, too, because the Rays have now done so in six of their seven series against Baltimore since the start of last season. Dating back to July 20, Tampa Bay has won 15 straight games against the O’s, the longest winning streak against one opponent in franchise history. The Rays are 21-1 against Baltimore since the start of last season while outscoring the O’s, 165-75, during that stretch.
Overall, the Rays seemed to pick up right where they left off at the end of last year’s 100-win regular season.
“We feel good,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We should be happy with the way we performed.”
But one thing looked new and improved for the 2022 version of the Rays this weekend, especially in Sunday’s series finale. This lineup isn’t all boom or bust, reliant on homers but done in by strikeouts. It can grind out at-bats, too. It showed it as Tampa Bay improved to 3-0 for just the third time in 25 years and the first time in a decade, as it also won its first three games in ‘02 and ‘12. The Rays have never begun a season 4-0.
The Rays wore down Orioles starter Tyler Wells, forcing him to throw 54 pitches to record five outs. Six hitters combined to see 31 pitches in the second inning -- resulting in two walks, an infield single, a sacrifice fly and a run-scoring groundout -- before Lowe unloaded on the 32nd, blasting a two-strike fastball a projected 437 feet out to right-center field for a two-run homer that made it a 4-0 game.
“It's kind of just a representation of what we're doing as a team. There's no selfishness in the lineup,” Lowe said. “Everybody just has that same goal, I think: We want to be in the World Series. We want to do what we were supposed to do last year, this year. I think it takes a lot of the selfish at-bats out of it, and people are happy with sac flys, walks in any situation.”
That played out again in a four-run seventh inning, when nine batters went to the plate and nobody struck out. Manuel Margot reached on an infield single. Lowe singled up the middle. Wander Franco capped his second three-hit game in three days with a two-run single to center. Randy Arozarena grounded out to advance Franco, then Ji-Man Choi swatted an RBI double to left. After another walk and a lineout, Harold Ramírez slapped an RBI single to right.
The Rays led the American League in strikeouts last season but whiffed only 22 times this weekend. Their two runs on Opening Day scored on sac flys in situations where just making good contact was enough. Two of their runs Saturday scored on outs, as was the case Sunday.
“That's a message that [hitting coach Chad Mottola] certainly gives the hitters, and the guys buy into that approach: just not making it easy for pitchers and doing everything we can,” Cash said. “Just making sure that we're being selective enough to get pitches that we can handle, and when you get them, handle them. It felt like we did that this weekend.”
Franco’s ability to do all of the above changed the complexion of Tampa Bay’s lineup last summer. Hitters like Choi, Yandy Díaz and Francisco Mejía -- the offensive hero in the Rays’ first two wins -- already presented challenging at-bats for opposing pitchers. The addition of Josh Lowe, who went to a full count in six of his first nine plate appearances this series, has already made an impact; Cash noted that the rookie’s quality at-bats might have been the offensive highlight of the series.
How best to explain the dynamic of the Rays’ lineup? Take it from Franco.
“A lot of talent,” he said through interpreter Manny Navarro, “and a lot of discipline.”
Meanwhile, Rays pitchers allowed only four runs this weekend, their fewest over the first three games of any season. They piled up 37 strikeouts, also a club record through three games. Their starters allowed only two runs in 13 innings, and their bullpen surrendered two in 14. That kind of performance has almost come to be expected, but it was no less appreciated inside the clubhouse.
“[The] pitching has been so good for so long, it's kind of just brushed off to the side when it's good as it is,” Brandon Lowe said. “For them to come out and do what they did, it's pretty impressive.”
Corey Kluber played his part in his Rays debut, working through a rocky first inning as he allowed three hits and struck out five over 4 2/3 innings on his 36th birthday. The veteran starter benefited from solid defense behind him, highlighted by Franco ranging 99 feet from a shifted shortstop position to snag Anthony Bemboom’s pop-up in left field for the first out of the third inning.
“Very impressive,” Kluber said. “I thought off the bat it was going to be one of those shift hits, but he got to it really quick.”