TORONTO — Sunday’s 8-4 win over the Blue Jays sent the Rays home on a happy flight with some significant numbers to show off:
• 7-2 on their 11-day, nine-game, three-city zone, two-nation country-crossing road trip;
• 5 straight series wins to open the season;
• 5½ games ahead of the second-place Yankees in the AL East;
• 12-4 overall, tops in the majors and matching the best 16-game start in franchise history.
And some pretty big words to go with it:
“It’s not surprising any of us in this room,’’ centerfielder and team leader Kevin Kiermaier said. “We knew we were capable of it, and we’ve got off to a great start. We just have to keep building off this more and more.
“Because now we know we’re good. We know we’re really good. We have to go out there and keep handling our business each and every day. … We have the team to make this a very special season. And the way everything is clicking right now, we’re going to keep this rolling as long as possible.’’
The Rays have done a lot right, obviously, to this point. They’ve taken advantage of the plague of injuries on the Yankees and the slow start by the Red Sox, who come to the Trop this weekend, to create a margin in the division standings.
Strong pitching has been the biggest factor in their success, along with the accompanying tidy defense, plus a versatile offense that can play small ball and hit long balls. They’ve shown their depth in overcoming injuries to two starting infielders, Matt Duffy and Joey Wendle. And they’re made a show of making clear how much fun they’re having, talking often about the clubhouse chemistry and camaraderie being a key element in what they’ve done.
“Not just the road trip but what we’ve done so far this year, I love where we are,’’ said veteran newcomer Charlie Morton, who played on playoff teams in Houston the past two seasons. “I think we’re in a great spot.’’
And, he said, because of that clubhouse chemistry, they seem equipped to be able to handle the losing streaks that are going to come. (Well, unless they maintain their current pace and finish 122-40.)
“When you hit those rough patches and lose four, five, six in a row, how do you respond from that?’’ he said. “Right now we’re playing really good ball. Blowing some teams out, winning tight games. We’re doing what we have to do to win right now, and we want to keep doing that.’’
For much of Sunday afternoon it looked like it would be another tight one. And after nearly blowing an 8-0 lead Friday and seeing Saturday’s game get away, the chance for an unhappy ending to the road trip was looming.
Morton wasn’t sharp, limiting the damage to just a first-inning run, but he wasn’t long for the game as the Rays small-balled their way to a 3-1 lead, including scoring twice in the fourth without hitting a ball out of the infield. An error by third baseman Daniel Robertson on a routine grounder that should have ended the fifth instead ended Morton’s afternoon at 92 pitches and 4⅔ innings, which kept him from qualifying for the win.
But a tag-team effort by the bullpen, six relievers total, kept the Jays down (though Wilmer Font did allow two runs in the ninth), and the Rays hitters posted a five-spot in the eighth, including consecutive pinch-hits by Mike Zunino and Guillermo Heredia, that made it easier.
Manager Kevin Cash was pleased with what they did and how they did it, knowing there were several key moments when the game could have turned. He acknowledged the importance of “capitalizing on the little things, little moments in some of these games.’’
Some Rogers Centre fans were giving Rays players a hard time about how few recognizable names they have. They’re happy to let the numbers be the answer.
“A lot of us may not have the long history of big-league success, but everyone is out here playing confident like we’ve been here for a long time,’’ said reliever Adam Kolarek, who got the win Sunday. “It’s great to see. Up and down the order and up and down our pitching staff we just play with so much confidence. And we just know how to win.’’
Kiermaier expects them to do plenty more of it.
“Maybe sooner or later the baseball world, media and everyone will realize what we’re doing and what we’re going to keep doing, but that’s okay,’’ he said.
“We come to the field each and every day and we’re all motivated, and that’s all you can ask for. We’ve got guys feeling really good about themselves, and that’s a contagious atmosphere and feel throughout the whole clubhouse, dugout, out on the field. We’re having some fun, and we’re whipping butt at the same time.’’
And if the pitchers continue their dominant work, and the different-star-every-day nature of the offense keeps taking advantage, the Rays expect to keep doing it.
“We’re going to be celebrating in clubhouses all across baseball quite a bit,’’ he said. “That’s what I talk about here and now, but I think we’ve backed it up so far, and that’s what we plan on doing from here on out.’’
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.