Rays enjoy relief of playing Astros again

There hasn't been much for the Tampa Bay Rays to be excited about this season, but a visit from the Houston Astros -- their neighbors in the American League cellar -- is a welcomed sight.

There hasn't been much for the Tampa Bay Rays to be excited about this season, but a visit from the Houston Astros -- their neighbors in the American League cellar -- is a welcomed sight.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- There's always the Houston Astros. They're always a welcomed sight.

There are some who consider this Houston team more promising than its predecessors that lost a combined 324 games the past three years. But to these Tampa Bay Rays, the Astros have become an oasis in the desert, a sliver of shade to beat the burn of the past three weeks.

Yes, there's always the Astros. On Thursday, the Rays were pleased to see the relief arrive again, for the third time in four games since last Friday.

Tampa Bay won 5-0 at Tropicana Field, and they looked mostly Rays-like in doing so: Strong pitching from right-hander Chris Archer (three hits and eight strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings) complemented an offense that had enough pop, highlighted by consecutive seventh-inning home runs by right fielder Kevin Kiermaier (two RBI) and third baseman Evan Longoria (one).

This looked smooth. This looked comfortable.

So basically, this looked rare among the other stumbles that allowed the Rays to fall to 28-45 overall before this four-game series began between the American League's worst teams. There's something about Houston that jolts life into Tampa Bay: After Thursday, the Rays stood 3-1 against the Astros this season since meeting for the first time this year last Friday at Minute Maid Park.

Consider: The Rays began play on this night a rough 3-16 against everyone but the Astros since May 26. Against Houston, since May 21, 2010, Tampa Bay is now 13-4.

It's hard to read too much into these trends. After all, these are the Astros. Many a contender has used them as a doormat in recent years. And they're not an American League East rival. Extended success for the Rays against, say, the Toronto Blue Jays or New York Yankees would mean more, especially this season when there's such a deep deficit to overcome.

But the Rays should take the lift however it comes. Each victory in this drought, each reason to bump the beats in the clubhouse postgame, should cause pause.

Catcher Ryan Hanigan, your thoughts?

"It's kind of the little things, I feel like sometimes for us, in terms of getting the sac fly or trying to stay out of the double play," said Hanigan, who had a sacrifice bunt in the bottom of the fourth inning that scored left fielder Brandon Guyer, giving Tampa Bay a 2-0 lead. "It can be easier said than done. These guys are obviously trying to get us to do both those things, to strike out or hit double plays. So we really try to work and grind and stay as disciplined as we can and as loose as we can at the plate."

It's somewhat strange to watch the Astros and consider the Rays their contemporary, a division cellar dweller. The development speaks to how strange this season's first half has become for Tampa Bay, once thought to be a World Series contender. It's proof of how awkward these recent months have been here.



Watch the Astros commit two errors Thursday, and it's easy to think, "Why have the Rays looked like this so often?" Watch the Astros labor to scrape out hits against Archer, and it's simple to consider, "Why have the Rays had similar hitting issues all year?"

"I think they saw a lot closer to my potential than they saw last time," said Archer, who allowed six runs (one earned) in three innings in a loss to Houston last Saturday. "It makes a huge difference when you're pitching ahead. Just getting strike one is key, and that's what tonight was proof of."

So the Rays saw in the Astros on Thursday a version of themselves that has led to great disappointment since that 0-8 road trip to Toronto, Boston and Miami in late May and early June. There was sloppy defense. There was inconsistent hitting. There were pitching mistakes that turned a winnable game into another loss, now Houston's 42nd in 74 contests this year.

"We had plenty of opportunities early," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who saw his team snap a 0-for-16 slump with runners in scoring position, when shortstop Yunel Escobar smacked an RBI single in the bottom of the fourth. "It finally kicked in late."

The good news for Tampa Bay: There are three more games against Houston this season.

The bad news: The Rays should wish there were more.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.