Longoria's slam keys six-run inning, win

Longoria's slam keys six-run inning, win

ST. PETERSBURG -- Just when it seemed as if the Rays would revert to their April malaise, just when it seemed as if Red Sox starter Justin Masterson would lull the Rays batters and the Tropicana Field crowd of 27,045 fans to sleep before the seventh-inning stretch, up came Evan Longoria with the bases loaded.

Should Tampa Bay tap into the magic of 2008, should the team go on from here to defend its American League East crown, Friday's 6-2 victory against Boston might very well prove to be an early catalyst, a tipping point, if you will.

And if all of that should happen, Longoria's at-bat in the fifth inning almost certainly will lead the highlight reel.

The short version: Tampa Bay's All-Star third baseman launched a 2-2 fastball from Masterson into the left-field bleachers for a grand slam that annihilated Boston's fragile 2-1 lead.

"I'm just real thankful that I get put in those spots," said Longoria, whose bases-loaded, bases-clearing double Thursday against the Red Sox's Josh Beckett sparked the Rays' 13-0 victory to open the series.

The version of Friday's heroics that Rays fans will want to remember? Before the ball had crossed the invisible plane of the left-field wall, Longoria already was pumping his right fist and clapping his hands as he joined the train of Rays runners around the bases.

And the version Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon savored was the long version, the version of a six-run inning that included a sacrifice bunt by Dioner Navarro, a sacrifice fly by B.J. Upton and walks by Masterson of Akinori Iwamura and Carl Crawford.

"Navi getting the bunt down, B.J. with two strikes moving the ball to right-center, Carl's walk, all those things contributed to that moment, obviously," Maddon said. "You're always trying to keep the inning alive. That's one of the constants I've always talked about."

For good measure, Carlos Pena followed Longoria's grand slam with his 10th home run of the season. Longoria and Pena went back-to-back for the second time this season; the first was April 12 against Baltimore.

No two Rays hitters have hit back-to-back home runs more often (four times).

Longoria's grand slam propelled him into the AL lead in RBIs with 28. He broke a tie with Pena, who collected his 25th RBI as he became the first player in the Majors this year to reach double figures in home runs.

In five games this year against Boston, the reigning AL Rookie of the Year is 10-for-22 with four home runs and 13 RBIs. For the Red Sox on Friday, that meant the wrong guy came to the plate at the wrong time.

And Masterson threw the wrong pitch.

"He had been pretty much dominating me the whole game with the hard sinker and the slider," Longoria said. "I was battling there, he got the two strikes, and I figured he would throw the slider -- I was actually looking for it."

Instead, he got a fastball over the middle of the plate.

"I was able to handle it," Longoria said.

Just like that, what looked like a good night for Masterson and another stuck-in-the-mud disappointment for the Rays turned into the kind of victory that can remind a struggling championship contender that it is considered a contender for a reason.

"You have to validate what you're doing at some point," Maddon said. "And we just had not been playing well."

A lot went right Friday, the first day the Rays were rid of a month of April that felt all wrong for the defending AL champions.

For one thing, they got the chance to enjoy consecutive victories for the first time since defeating the Orioles and Yankees successively on April 12 and 13. For another, Baltimore's loss to the Blue Jays enabled the Rays to climb out of the division cellar for the first time since April 18.

And, perhaps most significantly, the Rays followed Thursday's 13-run outburst (and one-hit pitching by Matt Garza and the bullpen) with the kind of offensive production and starting pitching that builds winning streaks.

The six-run inning against Masterson was more than enough, because Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine managed to pitch through his uncharacteristic command issues and limit the Red Sox to two runs in 5 2/3 innings.

By winning Friday, Sonnanstine (1-3) avoided setting a personal worst for consecutive regular-season starts without a victory. It had been 11 starts since he defeated the Angels on Aug. 18 last season, matching the 11-start winless streak that took place June 16-Aug. 10, 2007, his rookie season.

Part of the problem through Sonnanstine's first five starts this season has been command. Friday, he matched his career high with four walks, including one to Jason Bay with bases-loaded in the third to hand the Red Sox a 1-0 lead.

In 54 Major League starts prior to this season, Sonnanstine was among the AL's best with an average of 1.75 walks per nine innings. In five starts this season, he has averaged 4.26 walks per nine innings.

Sonnanstine said Friday he managed to identify and correct a mechanical issue that threw him off in the early innings. The walk to Bay was the last he issued.

"I felt like I battled through some control issues really well," said Sonnanstine. "It's still not where we need to be."

Carter Gaddis is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.