Rays finish sweep of Nats on odd bounce
Aybar's double wins it after Kapler ties game with homer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Suddenly, everything seems to be going the Rays' way.
On Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field, Willy Aybar's "seeing-eye" double in the eighth led the Rays to a 5-4 win over the Nationals with 25,841 watching.
And in a whisper, the Rays have become one of the hottest teams in baseball.
With the victory, the Rays extended their winning streak to five games while sweeping their three-game series against the Nationals to complete a 5-1 homestand and move to 34-31 on the season. In addition, the Rays moved into a tie for third place in the American League East, a position they have not seen since May 9, five games behind the first-place Red Sox.
Aybar pinch-hit for Gabe Gross with one out in the eighth and hit a grounder down the third-base line that Nationals third baseman Willie Harris prepared to field, but the ball hit the corner of the base and took a right turn into left field. Carlos Pena scored from second on the play and Aybar had himself a fortune-fueled two-bagger.
"It was weird, I had to freeze because [the ball] was to third base, and then I see the ball take a weird hop, so, no-brainer, have to go," Pena said. "I think [Harris] would have made that play easy. He was kind of set for it. And it kind of just bounced away from him, and I'm going home, that's what I'm thinking."
Harris said, "Things went well for [the Rays] right there."
"It just barely nicked the corner of the bag," Harris said. "What can you say about a play that goes like that?"
Teams on a roll get the breaks, and Friday's and Sunday's wins each featured game-turning breaks. Friday night's came when Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson dropped a foul fly to give Gabe Kapler another opportunity to swing the bat, and he did, producing a game-winning home run.
Sunday's good fortune came via Aybar's double and through yet another Kapler home run.
Kapler, who has struggled for much of the season, homered again, giving him one home run in each of his last three games. This time, Kapler found the cutout portion of the left-field wall just down the line for a game-tying two-run homer in the sixth.
"That was nice," Kapler said. "Because when I hit that ball, I didn't really think that was going to be a home run. I thought it was going to be a double. That was my mind-set. So, I came out of the box hard. And it was nice to have that little cutout there. It's nice when your home ballpark helps you win a game."
Kapler went 2-for-2 Sunday with three RBIs and appears to finally be heating up a little bit.
"There's no secret I've had some mechanical issues," Kapler said. "I believe that I'm getting closer to where I want to be."
James Shields started for the Rays and didn't have his best stuff, but managed to turn in his usual blue-collar performance to get through 6 1/3 innings to give the Rays a chance to win.
Randy Choate took over for Shields with one out and a runner aboard in the seventh and got the job done by retiring Nick Johnson on a groundout before striking out Adam Dunn to end the inning. Dan Wheeler picked up the win by pitching a scoreless eighth and J.P. Howell recorded three strikeouts in the ninth to preserve the win and earn his third save of the season.
During the homestand, the Rays' bullpen allowed no runs and now sports a scoreless streak of 22 1/3 innings dating back to June 7 against the Yankees.
"We just have to keep things going just like we've been doing," Howell said. "Keep the positive, positive energy going, which I think is the big difference. We're not really worried about closer by committee anymore. We've gotten used to it a little bit, and that's pretty fun."
Perhaps the biggest indication that the Rays might finally be ready to make a run is that they played a team they were supposed to beat and they beat them. The Nationals have the worst record in baseball at 16-45, but nobody on the Rays had anything bad to say about the club they swept over the weekend.
"I thought the Nationals played us very tough," Pena said. "They took the early lead all three games. That's a big league club over there, a very talented club. We never took them lightly. That was very important for us, to say, 'Hey guys let's go in there and play hard.'
"The record doesn't mean anything. These guys are big league players. I'm just happy we came out on top, and definitely the fact we had a nice a homestand is good too, to take that onto the road."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.