What happens when you add a suddenly scorching lineup to a stingy pitching staff and a defense as sturdy as any in the game?
You get the Rays, who seem to be hitting their stride after completing a three-game sweep of the Mets with a 7-1 win on Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay’s fourth straight victory, which capped the franchise’s first sweep of the Mets, sent the team into Monday’s off-day having won 10 of its last 14 games and moved the club a season-high four games above .500 at 23-19.
“Everyone's feeling good, but yeah, it's starting to come together,” left-hander Josh Fleming said. “And when we do -- when everything's working, when the pitching's working and the hitters are hitting -- we are a very, very tough team to beat.”
Everything that has gone right for the Rays lately was on display Sunday. Fleming couldn’t have been much better on the mound. They made a handful of excellent plays behind him, especially with Joey Wendle and Willy Adames on the left side of the infield. And the bats broke out again, clubbing three home runs off Mets starter Marcus Stroman.
Over their past four games, the Rays have scored 31 runs on 42 hits and 15 walks -- a big breakthrough considering their previous offensive inconsistency at Tropicana Field.
“When your team shows that offense, especially the way we were hitting a week ago, it's a great sign,” Adames said. “It's contagious. So we just needed a series like that, I think, to start rolling. And I'm just happy that we're going in the right direction.”
Stroman entered Sunday’s series finale having allowed only three home runs in his first seven starts, a stretch spanning 40 1/3 innings and 162 batters. But after Brandon Lowe kept the fourth inning alive by beating out a potential double-play grounder, Manuel Margot took Stroman's sinker deep to left-center field to put the Rays on the board.
Adames then launched a first-pitch sinker out to right-center in the fifth, and Lowe led off the sixth by ripping a first-pitch slider from Stroman into the right-field seats. It was just the fifth time Stroman has allowed three home runs in a game, and the first such game since the Rays took him deep three times on Aug. 23, 2017.
A day after the Rays put up 12 runs without hitting a homer, they scored seven -- five of them via the long ball, another on a double that capped Ji-Man Choi’s 3-for-4 return to the lineup and one more on Margot’s single in the eighth. The Rays believe in this group of hitters and have stood by it, even amid individual and team-wide slumps and calls for prospects like Wander Franco, the No. 1 prospect in baseball. Now the lineup seems to be rewarding that patience.
“We feel like, when we're right, we're pretty balanced,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We've got guys that can hit the ball out of the ballpark, drive it in the gaps. We've got guys that do a good job of making contact, putting it in play, and we've got guys that can get on base at a pretty good clip. You just want to be that relentless lineup.”
While their resurgent lineup stood out this weekend, run prevention remains the Rays’ backbone. They have allowed three runs or fewer in 25 games, most in the American League and second most in the Majors behind the Padres, and they began the day leading the Majors in team defensive runs saved, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Fleming did his part on Sunday, holding the Mets to just one infield hit while striking out five. He recorded a career-best 11 swinging strikes, had all four pitches working, threw strikes and maintained a quick pace. It was the quintessential Fleming start and, he said, “the best I've ever felt this season so far.”
And when Fleming is on his game, so is Tampa Bay’s defense.
Wendle made an excellent throw to retire Pete Alonso and end the fourth inning, and Adames made a sharp stop and a quick throw to retire Jonathan Villar and end the fifth. Afterward, Cash said Adames has played shortstop “as well as anybody in baseball for six weeks.”
“The way we work during practice, we work hard to bring that to the game, and it's good to see that it's translating,” Adames said. “It's fun whenever you're doing that.”
Fleming exited after throwing only 53 pitches in five innings, a decision he admitted was “tough” but one he nonetheless understood based on the Rays’ desire to keep their young arms fresh for the rest of a long season. Diego Castillo allowed a solo homer to Patrick Mazeika in the sixth, but Ryan Thompson, Collin McHugh and Cody Reed finished the game without allowing another hit.
When it all comes together like that, the Rays are -- as Fleming said -- a tough team to beat.
"We just had a really good series against a Mets team that was coming in pretty hot,” Cash said. “As a team -- offense, defense, pitching -- we do feel like we're playing well.”