ST. PETERSBURG — About two weeks ago, the Rays got really hot. Ever since, they have brought a scorching, searing, relentless kind of heat to the ballpark. And the keepers of that flame are ever changing.
Sunday afternoon’s 6-2 victory against the Philadelphia Phillies at Tropicana Field was about an opportunistic offense and a deep, productive bullpen. The Rays scored all of their runs with two outs and built a lead that was preserved by the team’s mound metronome, bulk pitcher Josh Fleming, along with four relievers.
Using a pair of home runs — a two-run line-drive shot by Mike Zunino and a solo blast by Brett Phillips on his 27th birthday — the Rays took early control and did what was needed. The Rays haven’t trailed in their last four games — since last Tuesday, in fact — and have led at the conclusion of 30 of their last 37 innings (remaining tied in the other seven).
Overall, the first-place Rays (34-20) have won 15 of their last 16 games, while sweeping the two-game set against the Phillies and capturing their last five series. During the 15-1 streak, the Rays have outscored their opponents 116-53.
“A lot of things are going our way and we’d like to think we’re creating some of those things,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Guys are taking advantage of opportunities, whether it’s at the plate, off the mound or defensively. Any time you go on a run like this team has been on, you’ve got to do a lot of things right. Fortunately for us, we are (doing that) right now.”
Fleming (5-3) followed opener Collin McHugh and induced a two-out grounder with a pair of first-inning runners aboard. Fleming then settled into his customary rhythm over 4 2/3 innings with six ground-ball outs and five strikeouts.
The Phillies cut the lead to 4-2 in the sixth, but Andrew Kittredge, Jeffrey Springs and Pete Fairbanks kept things in check, leaving it for Diego Castillo to close out the ninth. Things suddenly got interesting as the Phillies collected two singles and a walk, bringing Odubel Herrera to the plate as the potential tying run. But Castillo ended his laborious 27-pitch ninth by getting Herrera on a fly out.
“The Phillies kept putting pressure on us, but we got out of it,” Cash said. “Good for Diego to pitch out of it. They had some tough at-bats, but he stayed at it. He has been seasoned in that (ninth-inning) role. There was no panic on his part.”
There was no panic on anyone’s part. By now, the Rays know that someone, somewhere will come up with the winning edge.
“Obviously, (winning) 15 of 16 is difficult to do and quite an accomplishment,” Rays third baseman Joey Wendle said. “But it’s May. We know we have four months left. I don’t think we’re going to rest on our recent success. It’s not time to sit back and pat ourselves on the back. The time for that will be if we win the last game of the year.
“We’re on the gas pedal right now. We want to keep swinging and keep competing the way we have been.”
Wendle had perhaps the game’s biggest hit, a double to the rightfield gap in the seventh inning with two runners on. It easily knocked in Randy Arozarena and Austin Meadows, who was on first, also chugged toward the plate and scored on a throwing error by right fielder Brad Miller, making it 6-2.
“Joey’s hit was huge because we needed to open up the game a little bit right there”’ Cash said.
Earlier, Zunino got the Rays started with his team-leading 12th homer, a two-run shot. It was a lethal blow, almost sounding like gunfire, and the line drive had an exit velocity of 116 mph.
“Next level,” Wendle said. “I never really played with somebody who has consistently hit the ball as hard as he has. The way the ball jumps off his bat is pretty special.”
Perhaps lost in the long-ball excitement was the way the Rays’ second inning began. Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm, playing in the shift, tracked a high pop foul from Austin Meadows, but overran the play and it dropped. Meadows then walked to ignite an inning that resulted in Zunino’s homer.
With two outs in the fifth, Phillips’ homer made it 3-0. Arozarena and Brandon Lowe added to the damage with singles, then Ji-Man Choi produced an RBI double.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes to win on a daily basis,” Phillips said. “With six runs coming (with two outs), it’s just us battling, not trying to do too much. We’re grinding it out, but it has been exciting to be a part of it.”
It’s scorching, searing, relentless. The heat remains on.
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