Rays suddenly humming toward a September song

A sweep of the Marlins in Citrus Series is small potatoes given the schedule ahead of them.
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Jesus Aguilar (21), right, celebrates his eighth inning solo homer with Tampa Bay Rays right fielder Avisail Garcia (24) Sunday. CHRIS URSO   |   Times CHRIS URSO   |   Times  |  Tampa Bay Times CHRIS URSO   |   Times
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Jesus Aguilar (21), right, celebrates his eighth inning solo homer with Tampa Bay Rays right fielder Avisail Garcia (24) Sunday. CHRIS URSO | Times CHRIS URSO | Times | Tampa Bay TimesCHRIS URSO | Times
Published August 4

ST. PETERSBURG — And so another season of Citrus Series has come and gone. The Rays beat the Marlins 7-2 on Sunday for the 4-0 season sweep before 14,000 and change at Tropicana Field, including Miami co-owner and CEO Derek Jeter.

If only it was Loser Leaves the State.

And now back to the state of the Rays. Make it six wins in a row and seven of the last eight for Kevin Cash and his team, which kept right on sweeping after sweeping the Red Sox at Fenway. Sunday featured timely hitting, production up and down the lineup and a strong showing by a Rays bullpen that had been in a funk.

MORE RAYS: Tampa Bay completes sweep of Marlins with 7-2 win

The timing could not be better. Looks are deceiving, but this might be the most important stretch of this Rays season. It could feed into a righteous September, a playoff chase, just the kind of song we could use after all this Rays-to-Montreal funeral dirge. It could be special.

“It could be,” Cash said. “It will be.”

Here’s the ticket: Sunday’s win over the Marlins was the second of 21 straight games Tampa Bay will play against teams with losing records, four of them in last place. The next three weeks of baseball are against the Blue Jays, Tigers, Mariners, Padres and Orioles. Entering Sunday’s play, those clubs were a combined 128 games under 500.

Here’s the opening for the Rays, who are 35-12 against sub-.500 teams this season. They improved to 65-48 on Sunday. If they can make hay the next three weeks, they could be 20 to 22 games over .500, in prime position, before they play in Houston late in the month.

Consider their rivals in the wild-card race. Over the next three weeks, the Indians play 13 games against teams with winning records, the Twins play 12, the A’s play 11 and the Red Sox play five.

This is where you make your move or solidify it. This is where you lay down tracks that say this is your season. It’s up to the Rays.

I have no idea how Cash’s team will do that. Charlie Morton is their ace. They are battling injuries. They might get Blake Snell back in September. They might not get Tyler Glasnow back at all. These Rays make mistakes on the base paths and in the field. The Rays use so many gimmicks, maybe too many. Then the bullpen began imploding in the beginning of July. The bats went silent.

But here they are, in position, somehow, some way.

MORE RAYS: How the team pulled off four trades in the final minutes before the deadline

How?

“That’s for you guys to figure out, Cash said with a smile. “I think we already have that sense. Now it’s just a matter of going and getting it done. The guys believe in each other at a really high level.

It paid off Sunday. With a little of this and a little of that, the Rays string together a win and hung the Marlins out to dry. Avisail Garcia had two hits and two RBIs. Mike Brousseau had three hits, including a home run, and two RBIs. Jesus Aguilar had two hits, including his first Rays homer, and two RBIs. Mike Zunino, whose bat has finally emerged from a deep sleep, also homered.

Rays first baseman Jesus Aguilar (21) connects for a single in the seventh inning against the Miami Marlins Sunday. The newly-acquired slugger will be counted on to spark a postseason run for Tampa Bay. CHRIS URSO   |   Times CHRIS URSO   |   Times  |  Tampa Bay Times
Rays first baseman Jesus Aguilar (21) connects for a single in the seventh inning against the Miami Marlins Sunday. The newly-acquired slugger will be counted on to spark a postseason run for Tampa Bay. CHRIS URSO | Times CHRIS URSO | Times | Tampa Bay Times

Throw in good work from the pen, which came to the rescue after starter Yonny Chirinos left after five innings with right middle finger inflammation.

It added up 65-48.

“There were a lot of teams that would have traded places with us, 10, 12 games over .500, even when we went through that lull,” Zunino said.

“When our offense is producing like that, when our pitching is the way it’s been most of the year, we’re a tough team to beat,” Brousseau said.

The next three weeks are about reminding the American League and all of baseball of that fact. Don’t know how the Rays will do it, with openers, with closers, with singles or homers, but the task is at hand. There’s no getting around it. This is the opening, these next three weeks, beginning with Toronto tonight at the Trop.

This might be a good time to become a good home team again before heading west to Seattle and San Diego.

“I’m definitely not underestimating anyone,” Cash said. “We’ve gone on the West Coast and Seattle has given us fits. We’ve got to play good baseball there. But I don’t want to get too far out in front of what we have to accomplish against Toronto. If we play our style of baseball, we should come out, in the next couple of weeks, in a good spot.”

“We can’t take our feet off the gas at any time,” Zunino said.

September baseball, playoff baseball, reads the road sign.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly

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