With two runners on and two outs in the sixth inning Thursday night, Randy Arozarena crushed a fastball from Michael King toward the left-field seats at Tropicana Field. He looked toward the Rays’ dugout as he trotted out of the batter’s box, patted his chest twice with his right hand, then flung his bat aside. When Arozarena finished rounding the bases, Willy Adames greeted him with a hug in front of the dugout.
The Rays have had their issues at the plate so far this season, striking out too much and struggling to hit with runners in scoring position. But they expect to find their level over the course of a 162-game season, which is why hitting coach Chad Mottola repeatedly stated his belief Thursday afternoon that Tampa Bay’s hitters will be fine. They looked that way hours later in a 9-1 win over the Yankees at Tropicana Field.
It was the Rays’ highest-scoring game since April 20 in Kansas City and their best offensive output at the Trop since their home opener against the Yankees. Their three hits with runners in scoring position matched their total over the last four games. In eight innings, they scored as many runs as they had in their previous five games combined.
It was the kind of night they needed.
“Good for those guys. They've been wearing it and grinding through it,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “They deserve to have a night like this and feel a little bit better about themselves.”
There was a lot to feel good about in this one, even if they still struck out a season-high 16 times. After being shut down Tuesday and shut out by Gerrit Cole on Wednesday, the Rays backed up another excellent outing by Rich Hill with plenty of run support. Yandy Díaz delivered an elusive two-out hit with runners in scoring position in the first inning, Austin Meadows homered in the third and hit a two-run double in the eighth, and Arozarena smacked a three-run shot in the sixth inning.
“It’s the ebbs and flows of the game,” said Meadows, who finished with three extra-base hits and four RBIs. “You run into tough nights. You run into good nights. You’ve just got to savor them and enjoy them.”
The offensive outburst was almost enough to overshadow another strong outing by Hill, who struck out nine while allowing only six baserunners over 6 2/3 scoreless innings. The 41-year-old left-hander, who became the oldest active player in the Majors when Albert Pujols was designated for assignment, forced the Yankees to swing and miss on 19 of his season-high 104 pitches and ran his scoreless streak to 17 2/3 innings spanning his last four outings.
After giving up four runs in each of his first four starts, Hill has now allowed only two runs while striking out 27 batters in 21 2/3 innings over his last four appearances. Most of the runs in his early outings could be traced back to one or two pitches that led to big innings, but Hill hasn’t given his opponents much to work with since then.
“I think it's just overall making better pitches,” Hill said. “In April, it was just executing 0-2 pitches, 1-2 pitches and being better in those counts. That's a difference-maker. It's not so much [that] the ball’s coming out any differently. It's just making better pitches in certain counts.”
The Rays dropped two of those games despite Hill’s performance, but the veteran lefty had plenty of support on Thursday. With two outs in the first, Díaz lined a two-run single to center -- the kind of timely hit the Rays have often lamented missing this season -- off New York starter Jameson Taillon.
After Arozarena worked a leadoff walk in the third, Meadows -- who saw 10 pitches before striking out in the first -- expected a fastball from Taillon but reached down to hit a changeup out to right field for his team-leading eighth home run of the season.
What led to Meadows’ big night? Perhaps it was the midnight fishing expedition he embarked on with his wife, Alexis, after Wednesday’s game.
“It’s always good to be able to do that, get away from the game in a little stress-free environment,” Meadows said. “But I think it’s safe to say we’re going to go tonight.”
Meadows’ two-run shot gave the Rays a 4-0 lead, and Arozarena’s three-run homer off King broke the game open in the sixth. Asked before the game about Arozarena’s climbing strikeout total, Mottola noted an adjustment he made with his lower half on Wednesday and said, “He's probably the least of our concerns.”
The way he hit the ball, flipped his bat and spun into a celebration with Adames on Thursday, it’s easy to see why.
“It's always good, because that means he's doing good things. So he can have fun,” Cash said. “If he hits the ball out of the ballpark, that's probably the highlight.”