ST. PETERSBURG -- Coming off a long, losing road trip, the Rays were more than happy to return to Tropicana Field on Thursday. They’d dropped five of nine games on their three-city trip through Boston, Detroit and Toronto, and they lost each of their last two series. Only 10 days had passed since their last home game, but it often felt -- as infielder Yandy Díaz said -- "like we were gone for about a year."
It took one swing from Díaz to set a better tone for their final homestand of the regular season. Díaz hit a leadoff homer on the first pitch he saw, Manuel Margot and Kevin Kiermaier hustled their way to a pair of runs and Mike Zunino punctuated the Rays' offensive attack with his 31st homer. That was plenty of support as six pitchers, anchored by four strong innings from left-hander Dietrich Enns, combined to hold the Tigers to six hits and two walks in Tampa Bay’s 5-2, series-opening win Thursday night against Detroit.
“Definitely happy to be back,” Díaz said through interpreter Manny Navarro.
For the Rays, it was a return home, to the win column and to their style of baseball. And it brought them one step closer to securing a spot in the postseason.
The victory improved the Rays' American League East lead over the idle Blue Jays and Red Sox to 8 1/2 games with 15 left to play. Tampa Bay's magic number to clinch the division dropped to eight, and its magic number to secure a spot in the postseason is down to seven. If everything breaks their way, the Rays (91-56) can clinch a playoff spot as soon as Monday, the fifth game of this 10-game homestand.
The Rays’ four-game series began with what manager Kevin Cash called a hunch. Randy Arozarena has been their primary leadoff hitter against left-handed pitchers for the past two months, but Cash slotted Díaz into the top spot in the order against Tigers lefty Tyler Alexander for the first time since July 17.
“No apparent reason,” Cash said. “Mix it up and see if that can spark us a little bit.”
It did exactly that. Díaz stepped into the box against Alexander and thought about swinging at the first pitch, as he’s often seen fellow leadoff man Brandon Lowe do. Just before Alexander released an 88.8 mph sinker, though, Díaz said he was indecisive. Then the typically patient Díaz let his body take over, unloaded on the elevated pitch and crushed it a Statcast-projected 438 feet to left-center field for his third career leadoff homer.
“The mentality just kind of went away, and I just let the body kind of react,” he said.
With his 112.3 mph blast, Díaz became the 12th player in club history to hit a first-pitch leadoff homer. The most recent was Lowe, who did so against the Red Sox on Aug. 30. And that immediately put the Rays’ relatively rough road trip behind them.
“I think that really set the tone,” Zunino said. “Obviously he has the power, but [he's] a very patient hitter who really knows the strike zone. To see him come out ultra aggressive and really smoke a ball to get us going, it was a nice boost after a long road trip.”
Margot then walked and moved to second base when Nelson Cruz was hit by a pitch, resulting in a right forearm contusion that forced him to exit the game in the sixth inning. Both runners advanced on a passed ball, then Margot scored -- without so much as a throw home -- on Arozarena’s sacrifice fly to left field.
After that, Tampa Bay's bats went quiet until the Rays used their speed to their advantage again in the fifth inning. Kiermaier smacked a leadoff single to left field, moved to second on a groundout by Díaz and, running to steal third, wound up dashing home to score -- yes, from second -- on Margot’s infield single to shortstop Niko Goodrum.
“Just a lot of things we do when we’re going really well is staying aggressive -- smart baserunning, advancing on that, Randy being able to pick up that sac fly after that happens,” said Zunino, who launched a two-run homer to center in the sixth. “Those little things that end up going your right way is really what builds confidence in us and really gives us some momentum.”
Tampa Bay's pitching also set the right tone in the series opener. Louis Head worked a clean inning to begin the game, then Enns continued to impress by mixing his fastball and cutter for four efficient innings to earn his second career win. Enns, who has seized every opportunity given to him since Tampa Bay plucked him out of independent ball last summer, has allowed only one run in 11 innings over his past three appearances.
“There's a lot of people that have helped, but most importantly, Dietrich has made the most of it,” Cash said. “Once he got comfortable and committed himself to the zone, his stuff is really, really sharp.”
Yes, it was good to be home.
“Getting the lead helped. Pitching was just outstanding for us,” Cash said. “And the guys were genuinely excited to get back home.”