February 2, 2023

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Arozarena unfazed by facing unknown foe

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Rays outfielder sparks banged-up offense with 2-run homer in series-opening win
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ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays received word Friday afternoon that the White Sox had changed their starting pitcher for their series opener at Tropicana Field. Out went Vince Velasquez, and in came rookie Davis Martin, with all of five Major League innings to his name.

Fortunately for Randy Arozarena, familiarity is not a prerequisite for success.

“I usually don’t know much about the pitchers that are up there, anyway,” Arozarena said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “If they’re Major League pitchers, you know they’re good pitchers, so I just look for pitches to hit.”

Arozarena saw one in the first inning and didn’t miss it, launching an up-and-away fastball from Martin out to right field for a two-run homer. That put the finishing touches on the Rays’ four-run first inning and gave starter Shane McClanahan and their worn-down bullpen a little margin for error. They needed it, as things got interesting in the end until Colin Poche struck out Luis Robert with the bases loaded to seal a 6-3 win over the White Sox.

“It was awesome,” said McClanahan, who improved to 6-2 with a 2.10 ERA after allowing two runs and striking out eight over six innings. “The boys came out hot, and they’ve been starting to get hot lately. And this is a very dangerous offense when everything’s clicking, so it’s a good sign.”

Tampa Bay has won three straight games, the club’s longest winning streak since taking six in a row from May 2-7, to improve to a season-high 10 games over .500 at 31-21. Friday’s win, combined with the Blue Jays’ loss to the Twins, pushed the Rays back into second place in the American League East, six games behind the Yankees.

The Rays had been treading water for more than a week, alternating two-game winning and losing streaks since May 24 as they searched for more consistent offense. Before Friday, the last time they scored more than five runs was in their 7-6 loss to the Orioles on May 22. They’ve scuffled along since then, and the prospect of an offensive breakout seemed more remote when they lost shortstop Wander Franco to the injured list on Tuesday.

There’s no guarantee what they did Friday will translate into a sustained run at the plate, especially not with White Sox starters Dylan Cease and Lucas Giolito looming this weekend. But the Rays are tough to beat when they support their pitching, having gone 23-4 when scoring at least four runs this season. Friday’s victory provided a pretty good example of how they can keep putting up runs without key hitters like Franco and Brandon Lowe.

Yandy Díaz got on base four times and kick-started both of their rallies: the four-run first inning and two-run seventh. Manuel Margot found ways on base, too, continuing to deliver consistent at-bats with a walk in the first and an opposite-field single in the seventh. Harold Ramirez kept hitting, boosting his average to .286 with a 2-for-4 day that included a first-inning RBI single. Ji-Man Choi performed like a run producer, lifting a sacrifice fly in the first inning to get the Rays on the board then smacking a two-run double to right that made it 6-2 in the seventh.

“We really needed those add-on runs right there,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Our bullpen was pretty thin just given off of what took place in the Texas series, leaning on those guys pretty heavily. So it was nice to get those two runs to give us a four-run lead.”

And Arozarena provided the power, blasting his sixth home run in his past 22 games after a career-long 32-game homerless stretch.

“Randy is a guy, among others, that we really need to count on, lean on, and today it was big,” Cash said. “He shot a ball the other way for a single [in the eighth inning], but the home run was nice. The home run that was oppo means he’s covering, and he’s not getting too out in front of himself.”

Arozarena got off to an inconsistent start at the plate, batting just .225 with a .622 OPS in his first 37 games. In his past 13 games since the Rays’ trip to Baltimore began, however, he has hit .340 with four homers and 11 RBIs while increasing his OPS 100 points. A sustained hot streak from Arozarena would go a long way toward igniting the Rays’ offense as a whole.

“In the beginning of the season, I didn’t feel great at the plate,” Arozarena said through Navarro. “But I think I’m starting to come around and starting to feel good.

“I think we’re all doing a good job of staying prepared and working in our routines to be prepared for each game to hopefully win. … You have to stay positive. It’s a very negative sport. You get out a lot more times than you hit home runs.”

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