ST. PETERSBURG — The Twins arrived at Tropicana Field on Friday as the hottest team in the Majors. They swept a six-game homestand for the first time since the summer of 2008 and had won their last seven games, with their dangerous lineup averaging five runs per game and their stingy pitching staff allowing fewer than two per game during that stretch.
Tampa Bay jumped out to a four-run lead against starter Dylan Bundy in a first-inning rally highlighted by Lowe’s first career home run. Kluber held Minnesota to one hit over six efficient innings. The Rays cruised from there to a 6-1 victory, their third straight win, continuing an impressive stretch in which they’ve won seven of their last nine games.
“That’s exactly what you want to see against a guy like Dylan,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Without a doubt, he came in as one of the hottest starters in baseball. … Any time you can set a tone like that, it helps.”
Indeed, that first inning made it clear how the rest of the night would go. Kluber retired Byron Buxton, Luis Arraez and Carlos Correa in order, needing only 10 pitches to do so. Up came the Rays against Bundy, who entered his fourth start of the season with a perfect 3-0 record and a 0.59 ERA.
Brandon Lowe jumped on Bundy’s first pitch and smashed it off the wall in left-center field at 106.8 mph. Wander Franco then dropped a bloop double just inside the left-field line, driving in Lowe. Yandy Díaz got ahead in the count before slapping a single to right field, putting runners on the corners for Josh Lowe, batting cleanup for the first time this year.
Lowe unloaded on a first-pitch fastball from Bundy and sent it over the center-field fence for his first homer in the big leagues, a three-run blast that gave the Rays a 4-0 lead only eight pitches into Bundy’s outing.
“That felt great,” Lowe said. “Not only did it feel good to help the team win, but also to get a win to kick off the series against a team that’s coming here playing really well.”
Bundy, who wound up sticking around to complete six innings, credited the Rays’ game plan against him. He’d been effective through three starts beating hitters with pitches outside, and the Rays came prepared for those offerings. It was a therapeutic stretch of at-bats, too.
Brandon Lowe entered the night in a 5-for-44 skid. Franco had been in a rare slump, on an 0-for-8 streak with just one hit in 21 at-bats since April 22. But arguably nobody needed a big swing more than Josh Lowe.
The 24-year-old was batting just .170 with a .506 OPS and a 37.3 percent strikeout rate after his first 16 games of the season. He’d said all the right things and continued to work hard through his season-opening slump, and the Rays maintained their belief he would get on track soon enough.
Before Lowe’s first at-bat, Cash reassured the rookie again in the dugout. Well, sort of.
“I told him not to make me look stupid hitting him fourth,” Cash said, grinning. “And he didn’t.”
“That was some good assurance there from skip,” Lowe added. “That was fun.”
Lowe remembered facing Bundy in Spring Training and knew Bundy liked to get ahead in the count with his fastball. He went up ready to hit, got the fastball he expected and didn’t miss it. Lowe’s teammates celebrated his hit appropriately, and his own relief was evident as soon as the ball cleared the fence.
Lowe pumped both fists and shouted on his way to first base, and he flexed his muscles along with Brandon Lowe after returning to the dugout.
“It felt great,” he said. “That was awesome.”
Mike Zunino got in on the feel-good night with his first home run of the season in the third inning, snapping a 14-game homerless stretch in his return from a strained left biceps. That provided more than enough run support for Kluber, who earned his first win as a Ray and set season highs by striking out six over six walk-free innings as the Rays completed their sixth straight game allowing two earned runs or fewer.
Kluber flummoxed the Twins all night by filling up the strike zone with his entire arsenal, throwing no pitch more than 21 times (his curveball) and nothing fewer than 13 times (his changeup) among his 71 pitches on the night. His changeup was particularly effective against Minnesota’s left-handers, inducing six whiffs on 10 swings.
“Probably an ideal scenario for me is to keep it even, keep hitters a little bit off-balance as opposed to just sticking with one pitch or the other,” Kluber said. “You’re not going to go out there and blow anybody away, just working my way through a lineup with fastballs or anything like that. So the quicker I can kind of establish I have all the pitches working, we think it’ll benefit me.”