By Troy Provost-Heron and Brian McTaggart
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays put together a two-run rally in the fifth against Lance McCullers to spoil the 21-year-old's homecoming, as well as gift Matt Moore his first victory since returning from Tommy John surgery, in a 4-3 victory over the Astros that completed a three-game sweep Sunday at Tropicana Field.
After dropping 10 of 11 coming into the series, the Rays recorded their first sweep of a first-place team (beyond the first month of the season) since September 26-28, 2011, against the Yankees, and did so with just 16 hits, their lowest total in a three-game sweep in club history.
"Can't pick a better way to finish up the half leading into the break," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "The guys were outstanding. I think it's a testament just to what we've talked about all year with these guys here. We got knocked down, and they got up and played really good baseball these three games against Houston."
With the Astros holding on to a 3-2 lead, McCullers loaded the bases in the fifth and then walked John Jaso to bring home a run and then watched as Grady Sizemore legged out the relay of a double-play ball to give the Rays a 4-3 lead. The inning cost McCullers a chance at a win in his hometown and dropped him to 4-3 on the season.
Moore still looked like a guy coming back from major elbow surgery, allowing a run in the first and a two-run home run by Jose Altuve in the fourth after his offense gave him a 2-1 lead, but he battled through multiple high-intensity innings and managed to get through five, surrendering three runs on five hits and three walks.
The Astros hit the All-Star break riding a six-game losing streak that has them now a half-game behind the Angels in the American League West. Their offense has been in a funk, going 0-for-16 with runners in scoring position in the Rays series.
"I thought we swung the bats better, which is a good sign," manager A.J. Hinch said. "I think our at-bat quality is good. We couldn't get the hit with the runner in scoring position. They scratched together an inning, score a couple of runs when they didn't do a ton, and that's the difference in the game. That's the way the thing goes a little bit when we're in a stretch like we're in."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED That's four? After David DeJesus, Jake Elmore and Curt Casali all got aboard in the fifth, Jaso came to the plate and quickly found himself facing a 3-1 count. The only problem was the Rays' designated hitter was not aware, and after the fourth ball of the at-bat whizzed by him, he stood at the plate awaiting another pitch for a bit until he turned to home-plate umpire Toby Basner, realized he had walked and then proceeded to first base. The bases-loaded walk drew the Rays even with the Astros at 3-3.
"I wanted to do my job and get an RBI, that's all I was thinking," Jaso said. "I wasn't thinking about getting an RBI by walking, which is more of my game actually. I just wanted to have a better at-bat than I had the two before, and somehow I lost track of the count."
McCullers loses hometown debut: McCullers, who attended games at Tropicana Field while growing up in Tampa, allowed four earned runs -- a career high -- and four hits while striking out 10 batters in six innings. He's the first Astros pitcher with two double-digit strikeout games before his 22nd birthday since Tom Griffin (1969).
"I think it was some of the best stuff I've had all year, so I'm disappointed that four runs came across," McCullers said. "I was hoping that three runs today would have been enough, should have been enough. But that's just baseball." More >
Moore earns first win: Moore allowed eight baserunners and three runs over his five innings, but shortly after he departed, the Rays managed to strike for two runs and put him in line for the win. The four-man combination of Brandon Gomes, Steve Geltz, Kevin Jepsen and Brad Boxberger, who recorded his 23rd save, held that lead over the next four innings to give the left-hander his first win since September 29, 2013. More >
Boxberger bounces back: After being tacked with two losses in his two appearances before this series, Brad Boxberger rebounded nicely against the Astros, becoming the fourth pitcher in Rays history to save all three games of a three-game sweep, joining J.P. Howell (July 17-19, 2009 at Kansas City), Troy Percival (April 22-24, 2008 vs. Toronto) and Danys Baez (August 19-21, 2005 vs. Texas).
"When I was looking at video the other day, there was a lot more offspeed than I was throwing last year," Boxberger said. "It was more of just me getting back to who I am and being able to execute."
"We can't let a miserable trip (2-8) overshadow a really successful first half for us. We're proud of these guys. They're battling. There's no doubt this trip was miserable results-wise, but the effort is there and the intent is there and we're doing everything we can to scratch and claw out of this" -- Hinch
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS Will Harris' 0.89 ERA is the second-lowest in Astros history by a reliever before the All-Star break (Larry Andersen, 0.67 ERA, 1989).
WHAT'S NEXT Astros: The Astros will send Collin McHugh to the mound on Friday against the Rangers to open the second half of the season at 7:10 p.m. CT at Minute Maid Park. Eleven of his 18 starts have been quality, and the Astros are 11-7 when he pitches.
Rays: After the All-Star break, the Rays will travel north of the border to face off against the Blue Jays in a three-game series at 7:07 p.m. ET on Friday.
Troy Provost-Heron is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.