When Yandy Diaz led off the bottom of the first inning Sunday afternoon with a sharp single to left off the Braves’ Bryce Elder, that gave him six of the Rays’ last 11 hits over two-plus games.
While Diaz’s batting average continued to climb to an American League-leading .323 at the all-star break, the rest of the lineup had gone limp. In fact, as a team, the Rays were hitting .172 while averaging 2.4 runs during a seven-game losing streak, their longest in two years.
Fortunately for Tampa Bay, Diaz’s teammates jumped on board Sunday as the Rays scored 10 runs on 10 hits in a 10-4 victory over the visitors. The win prevented an Atlanta sweep in a three-game series that featured the teams with MLB’s best records.
In addition to halting a seven-game losing streak, they Rays also ended a five-game skid at home, the club’s longest at Tropicana Field since 2018. They had also scored only one run in each of the three previous games.
This is not to suggest the Tampa Bay clubhouse was in crisis mode. Regardless of the outcome in their series finale against Atlanta, the Rays were going to enter the break with the American League’s best record even if Baltimore would have had one less loss. Still, the seven-game losing streak was a part of a larger stretch in which they lost 10 of 15 and 16 of 26.
Of course, the Rays (58-35) were not going to maintain the absurd pace with which they started the season. They equaled the modern (since 1901) MLB mark by opening 13-0 and raced out to 20-3 and 29-7 marks as well as winning 30 of their first 36 at the Trop. Sooner or later, those numbers were sure to deflate. That is simply the nature of the beast in a 162-game slate and especially for a team that lost two starting pitchers (Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen) for the season by mid-May and recently had a third (Shane McClanahan) go on the injured list with back tightness.
To keep the overall and home winning percentages as high as they did for as long as they did was most impressive. That is why any kind of a drought raises eyebrows, though the Rays have been sliding back to earth for much of the past two months, something that is underscored in the fact that, entering Sunday’s game, they were .500 (28-28) since winning 29 of their first 36.
It not as though Kevin Cash’s team, which leads the Orioles by two games in the American League East, was getting pounded during their losing streak. The pitching staff yielded three runs or less in four of the seven defeats. The bats, as noted above, went cold and, at times, the fielding was far from stellar.
“We had reason to be frustrated the last week or so,” said Cash, following Sunday’s win. “I thought we were still doing some things okay, just not to the standard that we had maybe set. To win a ballgame and go into the break (with a thorough win) feels that much better.”
The Rays’ 58-35 (.624) mark at the break represents the best in the franchise’s 26 seasons, topping the 54-34 (.614) of 2010.
“Congrats to that group out there,” said Cash, whose team resumes its schedule at Kansas City on Friday. “Anytime you are doing something that is a franchise first, that’s saying something.”
It is saying something how well Zach Eflin has performed to this point in the season. The 29-year-old righthander, who signed the richest free-agent deal (three years, $40 million) in team history in December, needed to give the Rays a solid outing against a scorching Atlanta team that had won 20 of 22. He did just that in going five innings before exiting with a six-run lead. He improved to 10-4, including 9-1 at the Trop, and has combined with McClanahan in providing a formidable duo at the top of Tampa Bay’s rotation.
“(Sunday) was a day we needed a win to get right back on track and take that momentum going into the break,” said Eflin, who has allowed two runs or less in 10 of 17 starts while sporting a 3.25 ERA. “We head into the break with out spirits high. We had an awesome first half, but I think it could have been even better. Throughout 162 games you go on skids, things happen, but we are in a really, really good place as a team physically and culturally. It was a magical first half and it’s set up for a magical second half, too.”
After a weekend series in Kansas City and three games at Texas, the Rays return home to face the Orioles (July 20-23) in what should be a dandy four-game series.