'Happy flight' home for Rays after strong trip

May 10th, 2021

After a long stretch of games with little time to rest and reflect, the Rays left Oakland Coliseum on Sunday afternoon and boarded their cross-country flight home with plenty to feel good about.

Yes, they’re dealing with a long list of injuries that now includes Francisco Mejía (placed on the injured list with intercostal discomfort) and Kevin Kiermaier (left wrist sprain). Yes, they’re still trying to get a bunch of hitters on track nearly a month and a half into the season. And yes, they’re about to host the Yankees and Mets, both playing well of late, at Tropicana Field.

But with Sunday's 4-3 win over the A’s, the Rays wrapped up a trying portion of their schedule, avoided a series sweep in Oakland and concluded a seven-game West Coast road trip with five wins and two losses. They went 9-8 while playing 17 days in a row and finished their stretch of 30 games in 31 days with a 17-13 record. 

In doing so, they headed into Monday’s welcomed day off with their overall record two games above .500, at 19-17, despite their inconsistent offense and seemingly inescapable injuries.

“We needed that happy flight,” shortstop Willy Adames said, “because it's a long one."

After trailing throughout the first two games of the series, Tampa Bay battled back from a three-run deficit with big home runs from Adames (in the fifth inning) and Mike Brosseau (in the sixth) off Oakland lefty Cole Irvin.

The Rays still lead the Majors in strikeouts, and their average with runners in scoring position is the lowest in the American League, but timely home runs can make up for miserable stretches and missed opportunities at the plate.

To wit: The Rays only had four hits on Sunday, and they struck out 82 times during their seven-game road trip. But they homered nine times in those seven games, including the tying blast from Adames and the go-ahead shot from Brosseau on Sunday, shifting the focus off their struggles with runners in scoring position during their last homestand.

“[It's] pretty valuable. Home runs can make a lot of questions go away,” manager Kevin Cash said. “The offense has been kind of grinding, battling through a little bit of a tough stretch here. But those home runs can really help alleviate questions after the game. So I know it's one swing of the bat, but when you've got some guys on, it's huge.”

The Rays’ game-tying rally in the fifth began with a mistake by the A’s. Brosseau hit a sky-high pop-up just in front of the plate, the baseball grazing catcher Sean Murphy’s glove on the way down before bouncing away. Brosseau, who initially lost sight of the ball and lingered around home plate, hustled to first to reach safely then later scolded himself for not getting to second base. 

Joey Wendle moved Brosseau to third by lacing a double to right field, and one batter later, Adames launched a 1-1 changeup out to right field to even the score.

“We needed to score there to take a little bit of pressure off our pitchers and the whole team,” Adames said. “I was just happy that I got the opportunity to hit the ball and lucky that it went out.”

Tampa Bay’s bullpen covered five innings in the series finale, taking the ball from rookie lefty Shane McClanahan after he gave up three runs in the fourth then going from Jeffrey Springs to Ryan Thompson to Pete Fairbanks to Andrew Kittredge to seal the win and avoid the sweep.

The Rays held their opponents to three runs or fewer in six of seven games on this road trip, as they’ve now done in 13 of their last 16 games and 19 of their last 29.

“Really pleased with Shane and just an outstanding effort by our bullpen,” Cash said. “Everybody that came in just had to be spot on, lights out, and they really were.”

With that kind of shutdown work, the Rays only needed one more run to prevail. Brosseau delivered with two outs in the sixth, pulling a two-strike slider out to left field for his third home run of the season.

“It's no secret that I'm not performing the way that I and probably a lot of people expect me to,” said Brosseau, who entered Sunday with only six hits in his last 49 at-bats. “When you put those hours in off the field and try to get better, yeah, it's just a really good feeling to kind of see one not only fall but kind of go over the fence, too. It's a great feeling.”

It's also one that he and the Rays carried into their long flight home and a well-earned day off.

“We've got to be excited. We left home wanting to play better baseball. We did,” Cash said. “We went into Anaheim and found ways to win, and then we were in every single game, every single inning, here. We came up short the first two nights, but it's a huge credit to the guys. They don't get frustrated. They stay at it and came out and just really competed well.”