Kansas City, Mo. Comeback wins were the norm last year for the Tampa Bay Rays on their way to an AL pennant.
They’ve been doing it again since the All-Star break, rallying for three straight victories over Kansas City.
Gabe Gross drew a bases-loaded walk to force in the tiebreaking run with two outs in the eighth inning, and the Rays rallied against a struggling Royals bullpen for a 4-3 victory Sunday.
“We found a way offensively to scratch and come out with a win,” Gross said. “It seemed like we did that about 94, 95 times last year. That seemed like our recipe. To come out and start the second half that way is encouraging. It’s something we haven’t had happen a lot this year. If we get a second half full of those, we could be really dangerous.”
After losing 14 of their first 22 games, the Rays are 42-27, the best record in the American League since April 30. The Rays (51-41) are 23-9 since June 10 and are 10 games above .500 for the first time this year.
“In April we didn’t have our mental act together,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “Coming off the World Series, that first month is a very dangerous month. You really have to avoid the pitfalls and we fell a little bit, but we’ve rebounded nicely.
“We came from behind in all three. That’s really a good way for your team to think that if you keep it close that you can win it late. It’s great to be able to think those thoughts.”
The Royals, who have lost six straight and eight of nine, blew a 3-0 lead. It was the third straight game the bullpen failed to hold a lead. The Rays scored seven runs in the eighth innings in sweeping the three-game series.
“It is weird,” said J.P. Howell, who saved all three games. “It shows you’ve got to be patient. If you can’t get to the starters, then get him out of there and try to get to the bullpen. If plan A doesn’t work, go to plan B.
“We did a lot of that last year. It’s just another part of our game. It’s a certain way to win. You buy time, wait until late in the game and get some runs.”
The Royals (37-54) dropped to a season-worst 17 games below .500.
With the Rays trailing 3-2, Carl Crawford reached on an infield single in the eighth and went to third on an errant pickoff throw by Jamey Wright (0-3).
After Evan Longoria was intentionally walked, Carlos Pena singled home Crawford before Ben Zobrist drew a walk from John Bale to load the bases. Roman Colon then walked Gross after having him down in the count 0-2.
Grant Balfour (4-1), the third of five Rays pitchers, got out of an inherited jam in the seventh when Yuniesky Betancourt rolled into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded. Howell, who has converted his past seven save opportunities, earned his ninth save in 13 chances.
Royals starter Luke Hochevar struck out a career-high nine and did not walk a hitter for the first time this season, but had to settle for a no-decision. He left with a 3-2 lead, giving up seven hits in 6 1-3 innings.
“I got to two strikes a lot and I tried to put them away,” Hochevar said.
Alberto Callaspo had three hits and drove in two runs with a bases-loaded single with two outs in the Kansas City fifth.
Rays starter Matt Garza left after five innings and 101 pitches, allowing three runs on six hits and five walks, which matched his career high. He walked David DeJesus with the bases loaded in the second.
“The walks kill you,” Garza said. “It cost me three runs. It extended my innings. It cost me more innings. I could have been out there for the sixth or seventh.”
Jason Bartlett led off the Tampa Bay sixth with a single, stopped at third on B.J. Upton’s double and scored on Longoria’s groundout.
The Rays chased Hochevar in the seventh with Gross’ RBI double.
The Royals stranded 13 and went 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position.
“The damage was done in the eighth,” Royals manager Trey Hillman said. “Five walks out of the bullpen, 0-for-4 in situational hitting and 13 men left on base. It all adds up. We need more production out of the bullpen, that’s a no-brainer. We certainly had our opportunities to relieve some of the pressure offensively, and we didn’t do that. When you leave 13 men on base, you should definitely get more than three runs.”
NOTES: 1B Billy Butler had four of Kansas City’s 11 hits, matching his career high. ... Royals RHP Sidney Ponson, who has been on the disabled list with a right elbow strain, will make his first start since May 6 today when he faces the Angels. ... Zobrist extended his hitting streak to nine, matching his career high.