The Tampa Bay Rays' current three-game skid has cost them their grip on an AL wild card, and having to deal with a red-hot Adrian Beltre isn't making things any easier.
The Rays (70-58) have dropped three straight for the first time since a four-game skid June 25-28 after falling 6-5 in Monday's series opener. Their 2 1/2-game cushion is gone in the wild-card race, where they now trail Oakland and Baltimore by one-half game.
"That's OK, we'll get it back," manager Joe Maddon told the Rays' official website. "This thing is going to ebb and flow the rest of the season. There's no question it's going to come down to the nubs. Our goal is still to win the division and not just get in as a wild card."
Beltre was the villain from Tampa Bay's perspective Monday, going 3 for 3 with four RBIs and falling a triple short of his second cycle in four days. He hit a solo homer in the second inning, a two-run double in the third and added a go-ahead RBI single in the fifth.
The third baseman is batting .520 with six homers, a triple, three doubles and 13 RBIs over his last six games for the AL-best Rangers (76-52), who have won eight of 10.
"He's locked in,'' manager Ron Washington said. "We need everything he's giving us right now. He's one of the guys in our lineup that makes it work.''
Beltre, though, is 9 for 34 with 15 strikeouts lifetime versus Shields, who has also been on fire of late.
Shields (12-7, 4.01 ERA) is 4-0 with a 2.15 ERA over his last five starts - a stretch that began with an 11-strikeout, three-hit shutout of Oakland on July 31. He gave up three runs and fanned seven in 7 2-3 innings of Wednesday's 5-3 win over Kansas City.
"I'm mixing my pitches up pretty well,'' Shields said. "My delivery has been really, really well ever since the beginning of this month. My change up is back in action.''
The right-hander has compiled a 1.80 ERA while winning his last four regular-season starts versus the Rangers - the most recent April 27 - though he's lost to Texas in each of the last two postseasons.
The Tampa Bay lineup will get its first look at Darvish, who returns after missing his last start as a precaution due to a tight quad muscle.
"It feels very good," Darvish said. "If I had to make that start (Thursday), I was pretty sure I would have been able to do it. Everything went well (in a bullpen session) so it was the same physical preparation. With my delivery, I was able to do the same things I am normally able to do."
Darvish (12-9, 4.51) has been inconsistent since July 1, going 2-5 with a 6.23 ERA in eight starts - allowing six runs or more in four of them and three runs or fewer in the other four.
He yielded three runs over seven innings and struck out 10 in his last start Aug. 17, but fell 3-2 to Toronto.
The Japanese rookie right-hander is 1-2 with a 6.48 ERA over his last four home starts after beginning his major league career 7-0 in Arlington.