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Rays are back in first place but, better yet, back to familiar methods

ST. PETERSBURG — This is the way back. This is the path forgotten.

The early-season celebrations and home runs, the stolen bases and histrionics, were temporarily distracting for a franchise accustomed to winning a certain way. The Rays have never been a team willing, or capable, of comparing biceps with American League East lineups.

Since their first surprising run to the World Series in 2008, the Rays have won with pitching and defense. In every one of their eight playoff seasons, the Rays were a top-five team in the AL in ERA. Not once, in those playoff years, did Tampa Bay’s run scoring finish higher than run prevention in league rankings.

So, yes, it felt familiar watching the Rays beat the Orioles 3-0 Friday night to reclaim a share of the division lead.

It felt comforting. For a team in the midst of a midseason slide, it felt promising.

“I’m glad you brought that (up). We made some really nice defensive plays. (Brandon) Lowe had a couple, Yandy (Diaz) had one,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Yes, I think that’s kind of how we’re built. We went against it for a lot of the season, and our offense is going to continue to score a lot of runs, but at this point we’ll take any win we can get after five in a row, or six in a row, or whatever it was.

“So hopefully that gets some momentum and gets the bats some momentum going into the rest of the series.”

The Rays were held to three runs or fewer in 27.5 percent of their first 80 games this season. Since June 25, however, that percentage has more than doubled to 57.1 percent. It’s led to more losing than usual and more angst than a 61-40 team deserves, but that was based on the unrealistic expectations of an offense that began the year on fire.

Maybe the bats bounce back a little in August and September, but the Rays cannot depend on reaching the postseason because they bludgeon the opposition. Should they claim the fifth division title in franchise history it will be because Zach Eflin kept hitters off balance the way he did for seven innings against Baltimore on Friday night.

It will be because Tyler Glasnow was as impressive as he looked in a seven-inning outing on Thursday night. It will be because Shane McClanahan makes another run at the Cy Young Award the way he did in 2022.

“That’s kind of the theme of how we’ve been for a while, good pitching, clutch hitting, low-scoring games,” said Glasnow. “We hit so well earlier this year, and we’ve just hit a little rut lately for however many games. I wouldn’t be surprised if we came back and started hitting the way we were in the beginning of the year.

“But I think a more realistic path for our team would be games like this. You can’t always score 12 runs a night, but the fact that we have that potential and still win games like this is special.”

That’s why, as the Aug. 1 trade deadline draws near, the Rays are more likely to pursue pitching than offensive upgrades. (Unless the Francisco Mejia knee injury forces a deal for another catcher to go along with Christian Bethancourt.)

Tampa Bay’s rotation is front loaded enough that the Rays may just look for another starter who can fill the No. 5 hole and provide innings and depth against further injuries. They might also look to beef up a bullpen that has been much improved in recent weeks and is looking forward to the return of Andrew Kittredge from Tommy John surgery.

Rays relievers faced 19 Orioles the past two nights and got 12 strikeouts without surrendering a hit.

“This game felt clean. That’s probably the best way to describe it,” said closer Pete Fairbanks, who got his 11th save Friday. “We got hits when we needed them, put a few runs on the board, Eff set the tone and Colin (Poche) and I followed through.

“This was a good one. It felt like the way we used to play. So hopefully, it’s kind of a spark, and it gets us on a little bit of a roll.”

In case you’re wondering, the Rays lowered their team ERA to 3.67 on Friday night, which is the best in the majors.

That’s comforting. Familiar. Promising.

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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