ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays returned home this weekend convinced that their rocky start, particularly that terrible 2-7 road trip, was nothing more than a rough stretch of baseball. They said they would play better, and they believed a winning streak was due to follow a skid during which they lost eight of 10.
Three days later, Tampa Bay completed its first sweep of the season against what had been the American League's hottest team, beating Oakland, 8-1, at Tropicana Field on Sunday. The same Rays team that seemingly couldn't hit or pitch on the same night did both this weekend, outscoring the A's, 17-4, on the series.
"They came in here very hot. We came back home kind of licking our wounds a bit," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I never really doubted that we would come back like we did, but to beat this team pretty well ... we played more of a complete game. We pitched better. The offense came around. We played great defense for the three games, and that's what we've always talked about being about, pitching and defense. More like we're accustomed to watching ourselves play baseball."
Oakland entered the series leading the Majors in runs and extra-base hits before Tampa Bay's staff gave up only four runs and three extra-base hits in three games, leading the Rays to their first three-game winning streak of the young season. Sunday afternoon, they got another strong offensive showing and an effective start by Roberto Hernandez.
"I'd be stupid to sit here and blame it all on the offense and not give their pitching staff credit," A's first baseman Brandon Moss said. "They did an outstanding job of keeping us off-balance all series."
Hernandez didn't look especially sharp from the fourth inning on, but he pitched six innings and gave up only one run on three hits in his first victory since Sept. 20, 2011, back when he was known as Fausto Carmona and played for the Indians. That also made him the first Rays starter over the age of 31 to record a win since 32-year-old Mark Hendrickson beat the D-backs on June 20, 2006, and the first Rays win by a free-agent starter since Hideo Nomo beat the Blue Jays on June 27, 2005.
It had been 579 days since Hernandez last won a Major League game, and Maddon figured that Sunday's victory would be something of a confidence booster for the 32-year-old right-hander.
"Oh wow, long time. It felt good to win," Hernandez said. "I feel very, very, very great."
Hernandez walked three, hit a batter and had to work his way out of several jams when his mechanics started to come undone, but he also struck out seven and hung around long enough to get through six innings on 103 pitches. And he was nearly flawless through his first three innings, which Maddon considered a glimpse at what Hernandez can be when he puts everything together.
"I think you're going to see better things out of him, because the stuff is really, really good," Maddon said. "Now, it's just a matter of putting the whole thing together -- delivery to the plate -- where he can become more consistent."
As was the case Friday night, the Rays backed up their starter with plenty of run support. The Rays broke out for three runs in the first inning and another in the second, handing Hernandez a four-run lead almost immediately, while they beat up on A's lefty Tommy Milone and benefited from a defensive miscue.
Ryan Roberts singled, advanced to third on a double by Ben Zobrist and scored when Evan Longoria's fly ball to right field fell in and out of Josh Reddick's glove. That left Zobrist on third base and Longoria at second. Then Milone walked Shelley Duncan to load the bases and hit Sean Rodriguez in the shin to give Tampa Bay its second run. Kelly Johnson knocked a sacrifice fly to deep center field, scoring Longoria and giving the Rays a 3-0 lead.
Yunel Escobar added another run by jumping on the first pitch Milone threw in the second and crushing a line-drive homer into the left-field stands. The solo shot was Escobar's first homer with the Rays and the club's first long ball against a left-handed pitcher this season. Escobar, batting .119 entering Sunday, also doubled down the left-field line in the fourth and hit an RBI single to left in the eighth, finishing a triple short of the cycle.
Escobar, the only Ray to play every inning of every game this year, was hitting just .089 after 13 games. He was pushed down to the ninth spot in the order, but his defense remained solid, and he never lost focus defensively or, as Maddon said, "the joy on his face." He's hit .333 (6-for-18) in five games since then, including Sunday's 3-for-4 outing with two RBIs and a run scored.
"I know I've been struggling a little bit, but the results are coming out now," Escobar said through translator/reliever Joel Peralta. "I'm really happy with this team. I've never felt like this before with any team. I hope I can be a part of this team for the rest of my career."
The Rays wouldn't mind a few more games like that out of Escobar this year, or a few more outings like that out of Hernandez. Nor would they mind their first series sweep, their longest winning streak so far, stretching on a bit longer to completely wipe away the memory of a disappointing start.
"It's very encouraging," Zobrist said. "It's certainly something we want to build on."