Preview: Rays try to salvage split in 2-game series vs. Cubs

TV: FOX Sports Sun

TIME: Pregame coverage begins at 6:30 p.m.


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Chicago Cubs got a warm welcome in manager Joe Maddon’s return to Tropicana Field on Tuesday, and they will try to get out of town with a two-game sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays when the series concludes Wednesday.

The first-place Cubs (84-66) have won seven straight, but the Milwaukee Brewers matched them Tuesday night with a win to stay 3 1/2 games back in the National League Central. Chicago is gearing up for a four-game series at Miller Park this weekend.

“I feel like we’re playing really good baseball right now,” said Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber, who hit a solo home run as a designated hitter Tuesday, a role he could pick up again if the Cubs return to the World Series. “The way that our guys are just going out there and competing, it’s really good to see, especially this time of year. It’s getting to crunch time.”

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Unlike some of the NL’s other leading teams, the Cubs are peaking in September, on the mound and at the plate. Momentum is an important thing in the final two weeks of the regular season as well.

“We just have to keep this same pace we’re going at and not worry about however many games we’ve won or whatever it is,” Schwarber said after Chicago’s 2-1 win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday. “Just take it a day at a time and keep that same focus every day, like we’ve been doing. Good things are going to happen.”

On Wednesday, those efforts will start with Cubs pitcher Jon Lester. The left-hander was to pitch Tuesday but had that start bumped back a day, which means he won’t pitch against the Brewers on Sunday. Lester (11-7, 4.30 ERA) and took the loss against the Rays on July 4, giving up six runs on five innings.

The Rays know Lester well from his Boston Red Sox days — he is 13-10 in his career against Tampa Bay with a 4.22 ERA, and the 10 losses are the most he has against any major league team. By comparison, he is 15-4 against the Baltimore Orioles, 13-6 against the New York Yankees and 15-9 against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Tampa Bay, struggling to stay mathematically alive for the second American League wild card, will counter with lefty Blake Snell (3-6, 4.25 ERA). Snell hasn’t lost in his past nine starts, the longest stretch of its kind by a Rays starter this season, after going without a win for much of the season.

Snell pitched well against the Cubs in July at Wrigley Field, allowing no runs in five innings. He was in line for the win until the Rays bullpen took a loss.

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash, trying to stay optimistic despite his team dropping eight of 11 games, focused on the pitching and defense coming off a tough loss Tuesday in which the Rays were held to one hit.

“Our bullpen came in in some high-leverage situations to keep it right there and give the opportunity to the offense to get right back in there or tie it up,” he said. “They did everything they could.”