ST. PETERSBURG — Saturday’s setting seemed fitting for a coronation.
A season-high Tropicana Field crowd roaring as the home team Rays rallied from an early deficit, prevailing in a tense back-and-forth game with the Red Sox in a 9-5 win that vaulted them into sole possession of first place in the American League East.
Now they just have to stay there for the final two months, and 57 games, of the season.
“That’s the plan,’’ manager Kevin Cash.
The victory was the Rays’ second straight over the Red Sox, and third in a row overall, after Tampa Bay started the week with two losses to the Yankees.
The Rays improved to 63-42, reclaiming first place alone for the first time since late June. They moved a half-game ahead of the Red Sox, whom they play Sunday night in ESPN’s national spotlight, then 10 more times over the next 5½ weeks.
“We knew coming in this is going to be a big homestand for us,’’ Cash said. “We’ve got to be happy that we’ve kind of reset it here with two wins after losing the first two ballgames and then coming back to be in this position. We’ll keep going and know we have another big game (Sunday) night.’’
Like so many of their other wins, this was a group effort.
“That’s the team that we are,’’ catcher Francisco Mejia said, via team interpreter Manny Navarro . “Everybody’s going to participate one way or another’'.
There were intense at-bats and key hits from throughout the lineup. They overcame the 3-0 hole Ryan Yarbrough put them in before many of the 20,521 could settle into their seats, taking a 5-3 lead, then rallying again to go ahead 6-5 in the sixth.
Ji-Man Choi had a first-inning, two-run homer that helped reclaim some momentum, and Mejia had four RBIs with a two-strike, two-out homer and a single, showing off a new more-patient approach from his work with hitting coach Chad Mottola. And rookie Wander Franco had another big night, tripling in the go-ahead run in the sixth and singling in another in a three-run eighth.
Plus the Rays got huge outs from their bullpen, specifically Andrew Kittredge and Matt Wisler with strikeouts to get out of bases-loaded jams.
“Those guys, they’re pretty special,’’ Cash said. “They’re doing some really good things for us. … They certainly made big, big pitches when they needed to.’’
The contributions of Franco stood out, as the 20-year-old rookie who has been dealing with myriad adjustments to the majors since his June 22 promotion had a second straight big night — he had a double, triple and two RBIs in Friday’s win.
Saturday it wasn’t just what he did, but how he did it, batting back from an 0-2 count to 3-2 against Sox veteran starter Nathan Eovaldi, then lashing his triple down the first-base line.
“This is back-to-back games where he’s really picked up with just great at-bats,’’ Cash said. “Eovaldi is tough, that last at-bat there that ended his night was just another one of those at-bats that you kind of marvel at with a 20-year-old going and doing that.’’
Franco, who hiked his average from .220 to .239 in two days, said there have been no major changes to his form, more to his mental approach.
“I’ve been feeling really good. Luckily I’ve been able to gain that confidence, thank God,’’ he said via Navarro. “I’m just trying to go back to the mentality of how I used to hit before.’’
Also, Franco said he is having fun being part of a first-place team, the first time since 2013 the Rays are alone at the top 100 games into a season.
“We feel good,’’ he said. “We’re obviously very excited and happy. We’ve got to keep it going, and we’ve got to continue to work and hopefully be better from here on out.’’
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