"You could've said, 'Here we go again,'" Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "No question."
But they didn't. Instead, the Rays jumped all over A's lefty Brett Anderson in the first inning and proved on the field what they spent much of the day saying: They're a resilient bunch, and when their pitching and hitting finally click at the same time, things are going to get better in a hurry. And they did Friday night.
Tampa Bay tied a season high with eight runs and played solid defense behind right-hander Alex Cobb, who grinded through 7 1/3 strong innings on 101 pitches as the Rays beat the A's, 8-3, at Tropicana Field. The victory came on the heels of a 2-7 road trip through Texas, Boston and Baltimore that had dropped their record to 5-10 on the year and sparked a pregame, players-only meeting in which the message was simply: Relax and be patient.
"The bottom line is it was our 16th game. We haven't even played a month of baseball," said third baseman Evan Longoria, who spoke in the meeting and later hit his fourth homer in the last five games. "It really only matters where you're at at the end of the season. We'll figure out a way to right the ship, so to speak, and get back on track. And today was a good start."
By their recent standards, the Rays' four-run first inning was a veritable offensive outburst. They'd only scored five first-inning runs in their previous 15 games combined, and they did it by turning the table in two ways: with a two-out rally and a bases-loaded hit.
In the first inning, Desmond Jennings set the tone with a leadoff walk and scored on a one-out single by Ben Zobrist. Longoria struck out swinging, then Shelley Duncan worked a walk, pushing Zobrist to second. Sean Rodriguez bounced out of an 0-2 hole, worked the count full and singled to left field to drive in Zobrist, sending Duncan to third and prolonging the rally.
"I think Sean had the hit of the day, the at-bat of the day," Duncan said. "Getting that two-out RBI, I think that was the best at-bat of the whole game."
"That's what's come to be expected from each one of us. Whether I get a hit or not, don't just give up on the AB," Rodriguez said, practicing the kind of patience the Rays preached before the game.
The rally continued as Ryan Roberts reached on a single, then Jose Lobaton knocked a base hit to left field, giving the Rays' their first hit with the bases loaded since last September. They had been 0-for-12 with two walks in bases-loaded situations this year, and Lobaton's two-run single put the Rays up, 4-2.
"Had to end at some point," Maddon said. "Had to come back to us at some point."
Anderson left the game after the first inning with a sprained right ankle, but the Rays didn't let up against Oakland's bullpen. They added another run in the third, when Roberts dropped a single into center field to score Duncan, and they piled on three more in the fourth. Zobrist recorded an RBI single, and Longoria's two-run homer to left, his fourth of the season, essentially put the game out of reach.
"The wins and losses haven't really reflected how well we've swung the bats offensively," Longoria said. "Tonight was a great game to open the floodgates and score some runs and prove to ourselves that we can put up runs offensively, and hopefully we can continue to do that."
But that was all Cobb needed, as the big lead enabled him to attack hitters and use Oakland's aggressive hitting style against them.
It wasn't a particularly dazzling outing for the right-hander -- he said it was a grind right from Coco Crisp's leadoff, first-pitch double -- and Maddon noted that he "never really got into one of those Cobb grooves." But he was effective, and he was efficient, throwing 7 1/3 innings for the second time this year, the longest outings by any Rays starter.
"He was more workmanlike today, and that's a great thing," Maddon added. "To win a game like that against a hot team when you don't have everything going on in your favor really speaks well for him. That's what I saw. Not on the top of his game, but pitched really well and permitted us to win."
In other words, he did his job, as did the rest of the Rays. And at least on this night, when everything seemed to click, they looked better than their record might suggest -- just like they said they would.
"It's still not there. We still need to improve in certain areas, but it's wins like this that can get you rolling in the right direction," Maddon said. "It's all about confidence and believing. It'd be nice to get a couple in a row and get one of those hot streaks going. We've hit the cold streak. We're going to hit our hot streak, too.
"So hopefully this is the first game of many good ones to come in a row."