Pitching the foundation for Rays' early success
ST. PETERSBURG -- This should tell you something about the surging Tampa Bay Rays: All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria left Monday night's game with an injured knee, but his fill-in, Elliot Johnson, singled home the winning run in a 12-inning, 3-2 squeaker over the Seattle Mariners.
Last month ended with the Rays alone atop the rugged American League East. They're playing like a team on a mission -- 15-8 for the month, the second-best April in franchise history.
The Rays returned to a mostly empty Tropicana Field after taking two of three from the powerful Rangers in Arlington over the weekend and refused to let the stubborn Mariners stall their momentum.
Tampa Bay has won eight of its last nine games and 11 of its last 14.
What a shame there weren't more than 9,458 people at Tropicana Field to witness this ninth win in 10 starts at home.
You can talk about Johnson's game-winning hit and the fact that the Rays kept pushing the Mariners aside after the visitors twice took one-run leads all you want. That makes nice theater, but in the end, this superb start to 2012 is built on pitching, pitching, pitching.
No team in the league has better starters.
If the Rays make it to the postseason, which they should, it will be because of their strong arms.
On Monday night it was Jeremy Hellickson, the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year, matching pitches with Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, who won the 2010 AL Cy Young Award.
Hellickson's only mistake was a second-inning home run to Miguel Olivo, and when he left after seven innings, the teams were knotted in a 1-1 stalemate.
After the home run, the undefeated Hellickson retired 13 of 14 Mariners, including 10 in a row.
"I was getting ahead of guys better than I have been," said Hellickson, who with the no-decision remains 3-0 with a 2.51 ERA. "My fastball command was a little better, and my changeup works a lot better when my fastball is down and when I'm commanding that."
On Sunday night, against the Rangers, it was lefty David Price who earned the win. And in Friday night's victory, also over Texas, James Shields put down the team with the best record in the AL. Young Matt Moore, who faces the Mariners on Tuesday night, and Jeff Niemann complete the rotation.
What makes this even more impressive is the fact that for 188 consecutive games, the Rays have used a starting pitcher they drafted. That's a Major League record.
"Their starting pitching is as good as we've seen," said Seattle manager Eric Wedge. "We've been talking about that. Look at some of the kids they're throwing out there at you. You have different types of starting pitchers, which is always a luxury. This is a good challenge for us [in the four games] as a young team coming in there."
A single by first baseman Carlos Pena in the 12th set the stage for Johnson's game-winner. With one out, Ben Zobrist walked, and Pena advanced him to second with his hit off Seattle reliever Brandon League.
Pena, who had three of the Rays' 10 hits, said it's impossible to underestimate what strong pitching means to this team.
"We do have good arms, and we understand we're talented in that department," Pena said. "But I think the most important [thing] every one one of our starters realizes [is that] you just cannot go out there and believe the hype. You have to go out there between the lines and execute the pitches.
"I love the fact our starters work very hard regardless of what they may seeing out there in the media. They're more concerned about what they have to do today to win. They don't believe the hype. They know what they have to do on the mound. I think if they got distracted, they maybe wouldn't be as effective. They know what to focus [on], and that makes them so good."
Said Hellickson, who's allowed three earned runs or fewer in 34 of his 38 career starts: "We know we're talented, and people can say what they want, but you still have to go out there and pitch. You have to do it. That's how we approach it."
After the Mariners moved ahead, 2-1, in the 11th, the Rays battled back in their half of the inning on B.J. Upton's run-producing single.
"They got on top, but we didn't stop battling back," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "That's what I like about our guys. There is no quit in the group. To come back against League under those circumstances -- B.J.'s two-out knock, how about that? This was an outstanding day for us."
It was also huge for Johnson, who struck out with runners on second and third and two out in the fifth and fanned again with a runner on third and two out in the 10th.
"I think E.J. was able to elevate his game based on his tough times prior to that," said Maddon. "Everyone supported him through it. That's a big part of our success."
Johnson talked about putting an easy swing on the ball on the hit that won the game, but said that more than anything, it's exciting being with the Rays because "our starting pitching is so good, we have a chance to win every night."
Which is the way it is with the Rays right now. Their great arms give them that chance.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.