From a rough start, Rays celebrate ‘big win’ over Braves

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ATLANTA — The Rays got off to quite a start Sunday afternoon.

They didn’t get a hit through the first four innings against the Braves. They made a mess all over the field defensively. Their most athletic player, Kevin Kiermaier, made a most ungraceful move, tripping come out of the batter’s box in the third inning. By the end of the fourth, they were down three runs, and fortunate it wasn’t worse.

And then they ended up with quite a win, rallying and hanging on to beat the Braves 7-5.

“All in all, an effort by everybody that contributed,’' manager Kevin Cash said. “Just a big win for us.’'

Tampa Bay took two of three from Atlanta to improve to 55-38 and moved a half-game behind the American League East-leading Red Sox, who were routed by the Yankees 9-1 late Sunday.

It was the 28th time the Rays had come from behind to win — second most in the majors behind Boston — and another example of their collective resiliency and individual performances.

“That was a great comeback effort, little by little, just chipping away, inning by inning,’' said Kiermaier, who played a big role. “And that’s what this team is about. So we’ll take as many of those as we can get.’'

The Rays’ shaky start, with Rich Hill on the mound, seemed concerning, especially coming off a 9-0 mess Saturday night that was their worst shutout loss in nearly four years.

But from the frustrations of the misplays and missed plays, and the offensive futility against Braves starter (and ex-mate) Drew Smyly, the latest lefty to shackle them, an impressive comeback was created.

Technically it started in the fifth, but Kiermaier provided some momentum with a leaping catch at the centerfield wall with two on to end the Braves rally in the fourth and keep the deficit 3-0.

“The ball was carrying like crazy all weekend, and you didn’t have to hit it too hard to make it go a long way,’' Kiermaier said. “Fortunately enough I was able to make the catch right there and limit the damage … try to keep us in the game. And our offense started going from that point on.’'

They started small, Brandon Lowe’s grounder to the third-base side on somewhat of a checked swing to open the fifth was their first hit. All-Star Mike Zunino doubled, and a wild pitch got the Rays their first run. After Kiermaier drew an eight-pitch walk, a pinch-hit sac fly by Atlanta-area native Austin Meadows got them another.

Rookie Wander Franco got the Rays even in the sixth with a home run. The Braves went back ahead, 4-3, in the bottom half, but the Rays rallied again.

Joey Wendle opened the seventh with a single, then raced home from first when Kiermaier delivered a key hit, lacing a double into the rightfield corner.

“Joey Wendle starting that inning off with a great at-bat motivated me ... to try to step up right there and in a big situation to get something going for us,’' Kiermaier said.

After Kiermaier stole third, Meadows delivered another sac fly, both off lefties, to put the Rays up 5-4. A pinch-hit double by Francisco Mejia and a 423-foot homer to center by Yandy Diaz, who, no surprise, said he wasn’t looking to go deep, extended the margin to 7-4. Relievers Collin McHugh and Pete Fairbanks took it from there.

“Just a lot of really good at-bats that helped us get the runs on the board,’' Cash said. “(We’re) a good club. Sometimes it doesn’t show up in the first two or three innings, but these guys do a good job of showing up when those big moments arise to be able to come back, come from behind.’'

Diaz has been saying for weeks that he thinks the Rays have the top overall team, and Sunday’s performance gave him another opportunity to make his case.

“I still feel the exact same way,’' Diaz said, via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “Even if we make errors, we always recover from them, and we keep on going forward. I think this is the best team.”

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