ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)—The Tampa Bay Rays surged to first place without the offensive production they’re accustomed to getting from Carlos Pena. Now that he’s back in the middle of the lineup, the AL East leaders are counting on him to help them stay on top.
The Rays slugger spent most of June on the disabled list with a broken left index finger. He returned from a 19-game layoff last weekend at Pittsburgh, however his bat had been relatively quiet during his first six games off the DL.
“I feel great. My finger is feeling a lot better every day,” Pena said after going 2-for-4 to raise his batting average to .227 with 12 homers and 43 RBIs.
“Any time you can contribute, your confidence gets a boost. That’s obviously what we all need. When you’re confident up there, good things happen. You start expecting good things to happen.”
Pena hit .282 with 46 homers and 121 RBIs last season, when he was the AL Comeback Player of the Year. His average has not been above .250 this season, and Friday was only his eighth multi-hit game this year.
“It’s a nice start. You always like to see that. It’s huge to get him back,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “I’ve been saying this all along that, as we get deeper into the season, that there’s a lot of guys who haven’t had their typical season, and they will.”
Jackson (5-6) matched his win total for last season, limiting the Royals to David DeJesus’ first-inning single and Mark Grudzielanek’s solo homer in the seventh before giving up two singles and an unearned run in the eighth.
Tampa Bay won for the ninth time in 10 games, improved baseball’s best record to 53-32, and maintained a three-game lead in the division over second-place Boston, which beat the New York Yankees 6-4.
The Rays are a franchise-record 21 games over .500. Before this year, they had never been more than four games over at any point in a season.
The Royals have lost five of seven. They contributed to Tampa Bay’s fifth straight win with three errors, three walks and a wild pitch that led to runs.
“We made it real easy,” Kansas City manager Trey Hillman said. “They’ve got a good club, obviously, with the best record. But we did a lot of things really poorly that made their job a little easier.”
Pena’s first homer since June 3 was a three-run shot off Brian Bannister (7-8) that made it 7-0 in the fifth. He also had a RBI single in the first and a sacrifice fly in the third against the Kansas City starter, who allowed seven runs and eight hits in five innings.
Jackson didn’t get his first win in 2007 until June 24. The 24-year-old right-hander was 1-9 after losing to the Red Sox at Fenway Park on July 4 and finished 5-15 with a 5.76 ERA in 31 starts.
Thanks to a pair of double-play grounders, Jackson faced the minimum 18 batters through six innings. Grudzielanek hit his third homer of the season with one out in the seventh.
DeJesus led off the game with a single, extending his hitting streak to a career-best 16 games before Grudzielanek grounded into a double play. DeJesus drew a leadoff walk in the fourth, when Alex Gordon hit into an inning-ending double play.
B.J. Upton and Cliff Floyd had sacrifice flies during Tampa Bay’s three-run first. Pena’s sacrifice fly made it 4-0, then the slugger’s first homer since returning from a stint on the disabled list with a broken left index finger blew it open.
“It seemed like every ball they hit found a hole,” Bannister said. “It seemed like every ball we hit found a glove.”
The Rays added four runs in the eighth, two of them on Carl Crawford’s third single.
Attendance was announced as 16,830, down from the 33,768 the Rays averaged for their three-game sweep of Boston this week. … Rays SS Reid Brignac made his major league debut and went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and a walk. … Tampa Bay is the only team since 1900 to have the best record in the majors on July 4 after finishing with the worst mark in baseball the previous season. The 1967 Cubs are the only other team that’s held it after July 4, holding the the best record as late as July 24. … Kansas City OF Joey Gathright sat out for the second straight game with a sore left shoulder. … Royals RHP Leo Nunez (strained right lat) could be cleared this weekend to begin a minor league rehab assignment. … Rays RHP Al Reyes (right shoulder tendinitis) will pitch a simulated game on Saturday.