ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- All of the sudden, the Tampa Bay Rays are playing winning baseball.
After a 3-12 start that was the worst record in the American League and the worst start in franchise history, they have won four of five and three in a row, including an emphatic 10-1 win over the Twins on Saturday at Tropicana Field.
They will go for a series sweep of the Twins -- who came into Tropicana Field as division leaders -- on Sunday afternoon.
"It was nice to contribute to a good team win," said first baseman C.J. Cron, who hit two home runs and drove in four runs. "We scored a lot of runs there. I think 1-through-9 we had our best offensive day of the year. I think we are going to continue to keep clicking here."
The Rays were an impressive 7-for-9 with runners in scoring position, while Minnesota had only one hit under such circumstances, piling up nine hits but scoring only one run in what has been a frustrating weekend.
"We have to be patient," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "We have a lot of good hitters that we believe in offensively. We are coming off a stretch where we faced a couple of really good pitchers in Puerto Rico, and then we get Archer and Snell here. We're going to see good pitching throughout the trip, so it's just one of those things where you hope the repetition factor starts to play in and these guys feel that they can start putting some numbers on the board."
Sunday's game has two starters seeking their first wins of 2018, but under very different circumstances.
Twins right-hander Phil Hughes will make his season debut, coming off the disabled list with a strained left oblique, and he's making his first appearance since July and his first start since May 21 of last season.
Hughes pitched well in two rehab appearances, going 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA, after going 4-3 last season with a 5.87 ERA. He faced the Rays plenty in his early years with the Yankees and is 5-6 for his career with a 4.83 ERA -- he's just 1-3 since the start of the 2012 season.
The Rays counter with rookie Yonny Chirinos, just now formally crowned as Tampa Bay's No. 4 starter, having filled in on "bullpen days" without being scheduled formally as a starter.
Chirinos opened his major league career with 14.2 innings of scoreless baseball, but hit a wall in his last start, giving up six runs in 5 2/3 innings. For the season, he still has a 2.70 ERA, and the Rays are hopeful he can become a reliable starter for them.
When Blake Snell went seven innings in Saturday's win, it marked the first time all season a Rays starter had lasted seven, making them the last team in the majors to have a starter do so. They will continue to use a four-man rotation early in the season, so getting quality starts is a major part of continuing their recent success.
After Sunday's game, the Rays hit the road for nine straight games, starting Tuesday in Baltimore, while the Twins have four games at the Yankees starting Monday before they return home.