ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter came into this series with the Tampa Bay Rays showing a real urgency, challenging his team to push for every win possible as they chase the Blue Jays and Red Sox in the American League East.
Baltimore has responded in a big way, getting two easy wins over the Rays to pull within one game of Toronto for the division lead, with a chance to sweep Tampa Bay as they close out the series Wednesday afternoon.
“This is a tough place to play,” said Showalter, whose team is now 11-3 against the Rays this season. “You've got to be a self-starter and get yourself ready to play, because next thing you know, you can get ambushed. They're capable of good baseball.”
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The Rays are in danger of taking their first series sweep since the All-Star break as a team that had a 3-24 stretch going into the break has consistently avoided losing streaks like that in the past two months.
But on the very day they fired hitting coach Derek Shelton, the Rays went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position Tuesday, getting a home run from the first batter of the game, then just one unearned run the rest of the way.
“I know it's been ugly the last couple of days,” manager Kevin Cash said after Tuesday's loss, his team's third straight. “When you have some big innings like we've had go against us, it appears worse than it is at times. We want to win, and we're not playing to our abilities, but we have played better baseball as of late.”
Wednesday's Orioles starter, Dylan Bundy, has come a long way since making his first start of the season at the Trop against the Rays. Transitioning out of the bullpen, he lasted only 3 1/3 innings, giving up four runs in a 5-2 loss.
But since then he's gone 6-3, becoming a steady part of the rotation. In his last outing, he threw 5 2/3 innings of scoreless baseball, holding the Yankees to two hits in a win on Friday.
Rays starter Drew Smyly has had success against Baltimore in his career, going 4-1 with a 3.22 ERA in nine appearances. That wasn't the case in his last outing, however, as he gave up eight earned runs, matching a career high, in five innings in a loss on June 26 that included a grand slam to Chris Davis and home runs to Mark Trumbo and Jonathan Schoop.
The Rays had lessened the sting of their late-season irrelevance by playing much improved baseball in the last two months, but three straight losses have taken away some of that momentum.
“The best we can do is bounce back tomorrow and play a good ballgame,” said Cash, who will face the same Orioles team four more times next weekend in Baltimore.