Preview: Rays try to stay in AL wild-card race as Cubs come to town




ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — So much has changed since the Chicago Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays last met in early July.

When the Cubs won the finale to split a two-game set at Wrigley Field, it moved them to 42-42, while the Rays came out of the series with a 44-42 record.

Fast-forward to Tuesday night at Tropicana Field.

Chicago is 83-66, looking much more like the defending World Series champions, winners of six straight. Chicago holds a 3 1/2-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers atop the National League Central.

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The Rays, meanwhile, are 73-77 and have dropped three of four and seven of their past 10. They are five games back of the Minnesota Twins, who hold the second American League wild-card position, with 12 games to play.

The Cubs will go to Milwaukee for a pivotal four-game series this weekend, but first, manager Joe Maddon gets to return to oppose the team he managed from 2006-14.

“(I’m) really looking forward to seeing so many people who I owe a debt of gratitude to,” Maddon told the Tampa Bay Times. “I don’t have any negative feelings at all in that building.”

Maddon posted a 754-705 record with the Rays, leading the team to its only World Series in 2008.

Both scheduled Tuesday starters are going up against teams with which they played in the minors. Rays right-hander Chris Archer was in the Cubs’ system in 2009-10 before he was traded to Tampa Bay, and Chicago left-hander Mike Montgomery was in the Rays’ system from 2013-14 before he was traded to the Seattle Mariners.

The Rays salvaged a win against the Boston Red Sox on Sunday to end a three-game slide, getting a late home run from catcher Jesus Sucre at a time when every possible win is critical to staying alive for a postseason berth.

“They tied it up, and he answers right back,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “Those answered runs carry a lot of weight when they happen for us, or against us, and we saw that again (Sunday) in our favor.”

Archer (9-10, 4.06 ERA) actually has a higher ERA than last year when he was 9-19. He pitched well in Chicago against the Cubs in July, getting the win in a 6-5 game that saw him strike out eight batters in six innings. He gave up three runs on eight hits.

For his career, he is 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in two starts against the Cubs.

Montgomery (6-8, 3.57 ERA) hasn’t had as much luck against his old team — he hasn’t pitched against the Rays this season but is 0-3 with a 3.60 ERA in his career against them.

After the upcoming two-game series with the Cubs, the Rays have their next seven games on the road — four at Baltimore and three at the New York Yankees. It would likely take a 10-2 finish, if not better, for Tampa Bay move ahead of five teams to capture a playoff berth.

The Rays return home for their final three games against the Orioles, but realistically, the two games vs. Chicago might be their final contests as postseason contenders.