When Andrew Heaney struck out six of the first eight hitters he faced Thursday night, then finished the fifth inning with 10 strikeouts, the Rays knew their best chance to score involved getting the Angels’ starter out of the game and getting into their bullpen.
As soon as the Angels’ bullpen door swung open, the Rays lineup sprang to life.
Mike Zunino greeted reliever Mike Mayers in the seventh inning with a solo shot to put the Rays on the board, then Tampa Bay blasted the Halos’ bullpen, piling on seven runs in a wild eighth inning, and went on to win, 8-3, at Angel Stadium.
“Those are guys on nights like tonight that you just have to try to wear down, try to see some pitches, try to be able to get into that bullpen,” Zunino said. “And then once they changed up to the bullpen, we were able to stick to our gameplan and get guys on.”
The Rays have now won five in a row, tying their longest winning streak of the season. Thursday’s win completed Tampa Bay’s first four-game sweep since Aug. 10-13 in Boston and only the club’s second such sweep on the road since taking four in a row from Aug. 16-19, 2012, also against the Angels.
A series sweep seemed unlikely early in the seventh inning on Thursday night. Heaney befuddled the Rays’ bats for 6 2/3 innings, holding them to only four hits with 10 strikeouts. Tampa Bay entered the seventh inning trailing by three, seemingly unable to capitalize on another solid pitching performance -- this time by a combination of opener Collin McHugh (two perfect innings) and bulk lefty Josh Fleming (five innings, three runs) -- as long as Heaney remained in the game for the Angels.
But Heaney finally ceded the mound to Mayers with two outs in the seventh, having thrown 110 pitches overall -- including 28 to get his final five outs. Then it was like a switch flipped in the visitors’ dugout. If you think Zunino was looking forward to whatever sort of third-time-through-the-order advantage he might’ve had against Heaney, think again.
“I was happy he was out of the game, to be honest with you,” Zunino said.
He showed it crushing a 412-foot solo shot to left field, his sixth home run of the season and a blast that manager Kevin Cash said “kind of jolted us a little bit in the dugout.”
“And the guys fed off of it,” Cash added.
Did they ever. When Mayers returned to the mound in the eighth, the Rays put together their biggest offensive inning of the season.
Twelve batters. Seven hits. Two walks. Three stolen bases. A passed ball. A wild pitch. Add it all up, and you get the Rays’ seven-run explosion against three different Angels relievers.
“I think Zunino was the key to that inning. He got the motivation, and we all just had the momentum going,” Manuel Margot said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “We all just kind of wanted to follow what he was doing, and it just kept the momentum going, top to bottom.”
Brett Phillips began the inning with a single to right off Mayers, then Randy Arozarena reached out and swatted an RBI double to right-center. Margot tied the game with a single to right field, stole second against former teammate Aaron Slegers, kept his head up as he reached third on a double-steal with Austin Meadows, then scampered home to score the go-ahead run after Slegers’ sinker skipped by catcher Kurt Suzuki.
Without the slugging star power they saw across the field this week in Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, the Rays need to find different ways to score. They’ve had success putting the ball in play and putting pressure on opposing defenses, and Margot showed the benefits of creating havoc on the basepaths.
“That's a big part of his game,” Cash said of Margot. “He does so many things defensively, at the plate and definitely on the bases.”
They kept doing exactly that, pouring on runs to turn a two-run deficit into a comfortable lead. Yandy Díaz and Zunino contributed run-scoring hits, and Phillips put the finishing touch on the inning he started by launching a two-run double to right field.
“Everybody played a role offensively,” Cash said. “When you score seven in one inning, that's generally what it takes.”
The Rays woke up Sunday in last place in the American League East, two games under .500 and facing questions about their offense at the end of a tough homestand. They left Angel Stadium on Thursday on a five-game winning streak, having shown they can win games with pitching, defense, opportunistic offense -- and the occasional seven-run eruption.
“We're playing really good baseball behind our pitchers, defensively. We're doing everything we can to make wise decisions on the bases and just kind of biding our time, keeping it close,” Cash said. “And then when that big hit comes with guys on base, we've put ourselves in a situation to tie it, to take the lead and ultimately find a way to win.”