There is no place like home.
At least not for the Tampa Bay Rays, who have the majors’ highest winning percentage when playing on their home turf in the friendly confines of Tropicana Field.
Tampa Bay kept up its winning ways at home on Wednesday afternoon, defeating the Oakland Athletics, 4-2, in the rubber match of a three-game series to give the club its 13th series win at home in 14 tries.
James Shields did his part to help the Rays bounce back from a rare home loss, allowing three earned runs on six hits to earn the win.
Shields was sharp throughout, striking out seven without walking a batter. The 26-year-old right-hander, now 5-1 in his past six starts, nearly tossed his fourth complete game, but was taken out with out in the eighth inning after giving up a double to Jack Cust. He was replaced by Tampa Bay closer Troy Percival, who came shut the door to earn his 20th save.
A vocal leader in the clubhouse, Percival retired the final two outs for Tampa Bay, which remains in first place in the American League East. He has been on the disabled list twice in the past six weeks, though, making his health status is a cause for concern.
The Rays fell behind early when Shields surrendered back-to-back homers to Emil Brown and Carlos Gonzalez in the second inning.
Three innings later, though, Tampa Bay got in on the back-to-back homer barrage as well.
Jonny Gomes tied the game at 2-all, blasting a two-run home run, his eighth, off of Oakland left-handed starter Greg Smith. The homer came at the perfect time for Gomes, who may be the odd man out if the Rays acquire a right-handed bat at the trade deadline to diversify a lineup stacked with left-handed hitters, and the Rays, who have struggled when facing lefties. The popular slugger has yet to prove that he can fill as the right-handed bat in a platoon situation in right field, hitting just .197/.310/.424 with only a .205 batting average against southpaws. A below-average defensive outfielder, he truly needs to hit to justify his roster spot, but has tremendous power and is a Three True Outcome Player.
Ben Zobrist hit a home run of his own on Smith’s next pitch to give the Rays a 3-2 lead. The shot marked the fifth shot of the year for Zobrist, whose clutch homer against the Toronto Blue Jays helped end the Rays’ seven-game losing streak in the first contest following the All-Star break. He also delivered a run-scoring single in the seventh to pad the Rays’ lead and bring the score to its eventual final.
A versatile utility player who can play multiple positions, Zobrist has seen the majority of innings at shortstop for Tampa Bay in the absence of Jason Bartlett, who was activated this afternoon. Zobrist was sent back down to the minors to make room on the 25-man roster. He delivered some key homers, but hit only .230/.288/.486 in 74 at-bats since getting promoted from Triple-A Durham.
Tampa Bay will definitely receive a boost defensively when Bartlett returns, as he is the only shortstop on the roster to make an out of zone play and is among the majors’ most valuable defenders at his position.
Willy Aybar, Akinori Iwamura were the only other Rays to collect hits.
Shields, who has pitched a lot better than his record indicates this season, improves to 9-5. A legitimate number two starter, he has been a key stopper when things go south for the Rays. He threw 67 out of 104 pitches for strikes, inching himself up the strikeouts leaders in the American League. He was coming off a strong outing against Toronto last week, when he allowed only one earned run in seven innings to help put an end to the Rays’ losing streak.
Smith suffered the loss for Oakland, allowing all four earned runs in six innings pitched. The 24-year-old lefty, who has struggled with his command (83-to-56 K/W ratio), falls to 5-9 even though he has posted a 3.90 ERA.
With the series-clinching victory, Tampa Bay remains one game ahead of the Boston Red Sox, who play the Seattle Mariners this afternoon, in the division. The New York Yankees are only 3.5 games back now after defeating the Minnesota Twins, 5-1.
The stakes are high as the Rays begin a seven-game road trip on Thursday night. Matt Garza will take the ball in the opener of a four-game set with the Kansas City Royals, who will send Gil Meche to the mound. Garza has been a nice addition to the Tampa Bay staff so far, going 8-5 with a 3.68 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in his first 18 starts.
This trip will be a nice test for the Rays, who are 19-25 on the road.
Game Notes: Hitting from the three spot, Carl Crawford went 0-for-4 and left five runners on base. Upton, who singled and drew two walks, was thrown out stealing in the second inning but currently ranks in the top five in the AL in walks and stolen bases.
To contact Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.