ST. PETERSBURG -- Coming into this week's four-game set between the Rays and Twins, most of the talk was centered on Tampa Bay's stellar pitching and Minnesota's impressive offense.
But on Thursday, it was the Rays' lineup that flexed its muscles, exploding for six runs in the third inning and adding five runs in the fourth to jump out to an 11-0 lead through four innings against the Twins, en route to a dominant 14-3 win in the series opener.
“It was a good day throughout the lineup,” said Rays outfielder Tommy Pham , who left the game in the fifth inning with a right lower leg cramp but hopes to be in the lineup Friday. “And we needed it. We needed to give the bullpen a blow. Great overall contribution from the team.”
The Rays came into Thursday’s game hitting .154 (6-for-39) with the bases loaded this season, the lowest average in the Majors. But Austin Meadows continued his dominant week by lacing a bases-clearing double down the first-base line to give Tampa Bay a 3-0 lead in the third. Travis d’Arnaud drove Meadows in with a broken-bat single, and Brandon Lowe capped the outburst with a two-run single to chase Twins starter Martin Perez after just 2 2/3 innings.
With Perez out, the Rays went to work against the Twins' bullpen in the fourth inning. Meadows was in the middle of the action, connecting on an RBI single to give Tampa Bay a 7-0 lead. Willy Adames, Lowe and recently called up Christian Arroyo all had an RBI hit in the inning.
Ji-Man Choi added a two-run home run in the seventh inning off Zack Littell to push the lead to 14-2. Though the Rays set a season high in runs, Choi’s blast was their lone home run.
As the lineup continued to pile on, Charlie Morton was impressive on the mound, limiting a potent Twins lineup to just two runs over seven strong innings. The right-hander threw 87 pitches (62 for strikes) and struck out six without allowing a walk.
The Rays improved to a season-high 16 games over .500 at 35-19 and are projected to finish with a 94-68 record, according to FanGraphs. Now that they are 54 games into the season, let’s grade how the starting pitching, the bullpen and the offense have done.
Starting pitching: A+
The biggest reason the Rays are 35-19 is stellar pitching, particularly from their starters. Tampa Bay starters -- yes, including openers -- lead the Majors with a 2.33 ERA and have yielded three runs or fewer in 49 games.
If you want to focus on just the traditional starters such as Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Morton, they've compiled a 2.47 ERA, which would still lead the Majors, and have allowed three runs or fewer in 32 of 37 games. Glasnow, who is on the 60-day injured list with a mild right forearm strain, leads the way with a 1.86 ERA, with Morton coming in at 2.54 and Snell at 3.06.
Either way you look at it, Rays starters have been dominant, and they will continue to be the key as Tampa Bay makes a postseason push.
Relief pitching: A-
The bullpen has been outstanding, even with a pair of blown saves by Jose Alvarado over the past couple of weeks. Alvarado, Diego Castillo, Ryne Stanek, Emilio Pagan, Adam Kolarek and Chaz Roe have been solid, and Tampa Bay is confident that this group can continue to pitch this well for the remainder of the season.
With two more hits on Thursday, Meadows is batting .361 with 12 home runs and 35 RBIs, which would put him in the early American League MVP discussion if he hadn't missed close to three weeks with a fractured right thumb.
The Rays are also getting healthy contributions from Lowe, Pham, Avisail Garcia and Yandy Diaz. The one issue has been scoring enough runs on a daily basis to help out the pitching staff.
But even with some inconsistency, Tampa Bay's lineup has proven to be more potent than most people expected.
“We have so much fun, man,” Meadows said. “I think having fun in the clubhouse and on the field, that really just helps us go on the field and play well and win games. We all play for each other, and that’s kind of the biggest thing.”