Clutch hits key as Rays defeat A's

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. - The best start in baseball truly has been a team effort.

Pitching and defense drives Tampa Bay most nights, although the Rays also have a persistent offense that leads in the AL in runs and tops the major leagues with a .323 batting average with runners in scoring position.

The player delivering crucial hits changes nightly.

“If you look at us in general, that’s what we’ve been all about,” manager Joe Maddon said after Pat Burrell’s three-run homer keyed Tuesday night’s 8-6 victory over the Oakland Athletics.

“There’s nobody just killing it in regard to the typical batting average barometer,” Maddon added. “But we’ve been doing a nice job in situations, and when it matters.”

No. 9 hitter Reid Brignac also homered, helping the Rays match a club record for wins through April.

The AL East leaders improved baseball’s best record to 15-5. The victory total equals the number they had at the end of April two years ago, when they were 1-0 in March and 14-12 in April.

Burrell’s three-run homer off Ben Sheets (1-2) snapped a 4-4 tie in the third inning. Brignac’s solo shot leading off the bottom of the fourth gave right-hander Wade Davis (2-1) an 8-4 lead.

“To be able to contribute is as important as anything else,” said Burrell, who shrugged off a slow start to drive in nine runs while helping Tampa Bay go 9-1 on a road trip that ended last week.

“If you can find a way to have a big at-bat in a game that ends up being important in the outcome,” the designated hitter added, “it’s kind of why we’re all here.”

The Rays have won 12 of their past 14 and are off to the best start in the team’s 13-season history. Nevertheless, attendance for the opener of a two-game series against another first-place team drew an announced crowd of 10,825 to Tropicana Field.

Davis weathered a shaky five innings to win his second straight decision. He gave up a three-run homer to Cliff Pennington, who had four hits and four RBI’s — both career highs — for the A’s.

Burrell, who is 8-for-19 with three homers against Sheets in his career, put Tampa Bay ahead for good. Brignac’s homer leading off the fourth inning restored a four-run lead for Davis.

“I’ve found a way to hit Pat’s bat a lot,” Sheets said. “He’s really had his way with me through the years.”