ST. PETERSBURG — Brandon Lowe said he feels better at the plate. Normal, even. But far from anything special, which might be the most extraordinary — and encouraging — thing about what he’s doing.
Lowe hit two more homers Saturday, leading the Rays over the Blue Jays 5-2 for their sixth straight win.
That’s four home runs in the past four games for the previously struggling second baseman/corner outfielder, six in his past eight games, and eight in his past 15. He has a career-high 20 overall and is on a pace for 36 this season.
And he said there is more to come.
“I feel normal,’' Lowe said. “I don’t think that I’m on a tear or as hot as I can be. But I definitely feel better at the plate.’'
Lowe’s resurrection has been a welcome boost to the Rays, who improved to 53-36 heading into Sunday’s final game before the All-Star break. They moved within 1½ games of the American League East-leading Red Sox, who lost 11-2 to the Phillies.
There was help Saturday as All-Star catcher Mike Zunino also homered and made a key pickoff throw in the first inning, and relievers Matt Wisler, Pete Fairbanks (who got the biggest outs) and Diego Castillo teamed to pick up starter Ryan Yarbrough, who battled through five innings and needed 104 pitches to do so. The relief trio extended the bullpen’s scoreless streak to 18 innings.
Lowe has made an ongoing series of changes and adjustments to his swing and stance, trying to find the groove that lets him launch balls into the seats, while posting a batting average, currently .208, that’s among the lowest of American League regulars and a strikeout total (107) among the highest. With that has come a slight reduction in playing time, especially against left-handers.
He has also had to adjust his expectations and mental approach, accepting that he can’t make up for several rough months in one day.
Manager Kevin Cash said there has been a confluence of factors leading to his rise.
“He knows he’s a good player, we certainly know he’s a good player and that he can help us,’' Cash said. “We’ve seen in the past where he gets hot and balls are hitting off the wall, over the wall, at a pretty, pretty good rate. And that’s what we’re seeing right now.
“But ultimately, it’s Brandon just kind of seeing it through. It’s very easy to get frustrated. Sometimes it’s fair to be frustrated. And I think he’s had those moments at certain parts of the season. But give him a lot of credit for staying at it and keeping his head above water and staying confident to allow himself to do this.’'
Lowe homered on Toronto right-hander Ross Stripling’s first pitch of the game, lacing a 410-foot, 108 mph blast to right. After the Jays went ahead 2-1 in the third on Marcus Semien’s homer, Zunino got his team even, opening the home third by crushing a ball 428 feet at 109.9 mph deep into the leftfield seats, his 19th of the season. Then Lowe put them ahead 4-2, and to stay, with a two-run shot.
The Rays have reason, after losing 12 of 16, to be pleased again with how they are playing. Even more so if Lowe is going to be again leading the way.
“It’s going to be huge,’' Yarbrough said after picking up his sixth win. ““He can carry a team when he’s really hot. ... So you get really excited about that when he starts hitting the ball like he has been, especially all the homers.
“You’re just really happy for him because you understand all the work he’s been putting in behind the scenes. A lot of people don’t necessarily see that, but he’s working his ass off right now. He himself was not really happy with how it was going, but he’s working it off, and you’re kind of seeing the dividends.’'
• • •
Sign up for the Rays Report weekly newsletter to get fresh perspectives on the Tampa Bay Rays and the rest of the majors from sports columnist John Romano.