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Thursday, May 12, 2011
Rays suddenly have solid hitting attack

By David Schoenfield

Through their first nine games, the Tampa Bay Rays were 1-8, had scored 20 runs, were hitting .163, their best player was injured and their cleanup hitter had retired. Playing in the AL East is tough enough, but it appeared as if things were getting away in a hurry from Joe Maddon's club.

On April 11, they went to Boston. In the top of the second inning against Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ben Zobrist doubled, B.J. Upton walked, Felipe Lopez singled, John Jaso doubled, Reid Brignac singled and Sam Fuld smacked a two-run homer to finish off the six-run outburst. Just like that, the Rays were back.

After beating Cleveland 7-4 on Thursday afternoon -- handing Justin Masterson his first defeat -- the Rays are 22-15, in first place by half a game over the Yankees, and it's been the offense that has led the 21-7 surge since those bleak days in early April.

They've averaged 5.2 runs per game over those 28 contests while hitting .276 with 27 home runs. In the 2011 version of offense, that's a veritable lineup of mashers. They are especially tough on right-handers. Platoon outfielder Matt Joyce is hitting .358/.410/.569, and you wonder if Maddon will start giving him more playing time against lefties. Ben Zobrist is back to crushing righties like he did in 2009 (seven of his eight homers have come from the left side of the plate). The big surprise has been first baseman Casey Kotchman, who joined the club only after Manny Ramirez called it a career, but is hitting .360/.435/.453 after getting two more hits Thursday. Sure, maybe he's been lucky on groundballs sneaking through the infield, but he also had offseason eye surgery to clean up a bacterial infection. After a disastrous .217 season in Seattle last year, he can actually see the ball. "It was kind of like looking through a dirty windshield wiper," he told the St. Petersburg Times.

Oh, the pitching and defense are still pretty good: The Rays have a 2.79 ERA over those past 28 games.

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