Blue Jays-Rays Preview
The Tampa Bay Rays' offense has awoken over the past three games, but there's a very real possibility it's too late to make a difference.
With their margin for error dwindling, the Rays look to stay hot at the plate while running their winning streak to four Saturday night as they face the visiting Toronto Blue Jays, who will have shortstop Yunel Escobar back in the lineup.
Tampa Bay (81-70) hit .204 and was held to 3.25 runs per game while dropping seven of eight Sept. 11-18, a stretch that dropped it from one game out of playoff position to six back.
Manager Joe Maddon referred to those woes at the plate as a "seasonal misadventure" after the last loss in that skid, but his team - at least temporarily - has turned it around. After totaling 20 runs in their final two games against Boston, the Rays pounded out 16 hits in a 12-1 rout of Toronto on Friday.
Unfortunately for Maddon's club, winning isn't enough these days since they need AL East-leading New York or one of the current wild-card leaders - Baltimore or Oakland - to slip up. The Rays, who finish with three against the Orioles, are currently 4 1/2 behind the A's for the second spot and 6 1/2 in back of the Yankees.
"I totally, absolutely believe we can do this. I firmly believe that,'' Maddon said. "Again, it's about a bunch of one-game winning streaks on our part. We're very capable. We have the pitching to do it, and I do believe guys are fresh. ... We have to keep playing, keep applying pressure to (teams) that are slightly above us.''
The Rays' chances would improve greatly if Matt Moore can end a five-start winless streak and help his team clinch its 17th consecutive home series against Toronto.
Moore (10-11, 3.88 ERA) has lost his last four outings, and the past two have been particularly rough. He gave up three runs and lasted a then season-low four innings in a 9-2 loss at Baltimore on Sept. 11, then made it through only three frames - yielding five runs - in a 6-4 loss at Yankee Stadium on Sunday.
"I didn't do a very good job of anything with put-aways the way I was supposed to," Moore said.
Moore is 1-1 with a 2.70 ERA in three starts versus Toronto (66-83) this season, and the Rays' staff has rarely failed to confound the Blue Jays. Tampa Bay's pitchers have a 2.39 ERA in helping the club go 12-4 against Toronto in 2012, and the starters have posted a 1.62 ERA in the last eight matchups.
That means the Jays may need a dynamic start from Brandon Morrow (8-6, 2.98), who's coming off the best of his five outings since returning from an oblique injury that cost him two and a half months. The right-hander held Boston to four hits over six innings Sunday, though Toronto's offense didn't break through until after he left in a 5-0 win.
Morrow's last victory came against the Rays on Aug. 31, when he allowed one run over 6 2-3 innings to win 2-1. He gave up a combined 12 runs in 11 innings of his first two starts versus Tampa Bay this season, and all three have come at Rogers Centre.
Morrow should be thrilled to finally start in St. Petersburg after going 2-0 with a 0.68 ERA there in 2011.
Quite a few Rays hitters might not share that sentiment. Evan Longoria is a .217 (5 for 23) hitter against Morrow, Ben Zobrist .138 (4 for 29) and B.J. Upton .182 (4 for 22) while Carlos Pena is hitless in 12 at-bats.
Desmond Jennings, however, is 5 for 11 with three homers off Morrow.
Escobar could give the Jays a boost Saturday, as he was batting fifth two days after serving a three-game suspension for wearing eye-black displaying an anti-gay slur written in Spanish.