ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The last time the Tampa Bay Rays played a home game at least this late in the year while still in position to make the playoffs, it was September 2013, so there is an excitement as the Rays return to Tropicana Field for the first time since the All-Star break for a three-game series against the Texas Rangers.
The Rays (51-45) are in line for the American League’s first wild card, sitting just 2 1/2 games behind the division-leading Boston Red Sox and one game up on the New York Yankees. Tampa Bay has won four of six since the All-Star break, building a momentum that would only grow with success in a six-game homestand.
“I think we’re all excited to get home,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said after a 7-2 loss at Oakland on Wednesday night. “You combine the break and these six games, it feels like we’ve been away from home for quite some time.”
The last surge likely has made buyers of the Rays at the trade deadline as they seek bullpen help. However, the Rangers (45-50) have lost five in a row in a mid-July dive that could turn them into sellers, potentially of top starters such as Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels.
It’s been an up-and-down month for Texas, which lost six of seven then won five of six before the current five-game skid. The Rangers fell 9-7 to the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday in a game they led 5-1.
If they are to change directions again in St. Petersburg, it needs to start Friday with Darvish, who is 6-8 but carries a solid 3.45 ERA.
Darvish has been dominant against the Rays: 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA — including a three-hit, 12-strikeout gem in his final appearance of last season.
He will go against one of the hottest pitchers in baseball. Rays right-hander Alex Cobb (8-6, 3.59 ERA) has allowed just one run over 15 1/3 innings in his past two starts. He is 3-1 in his past five starts, going at least seven innings in four of those outings.
Cobb is 1-0 with a 2.77 ERA in four career starts against the Rangers, though he hasn’t faced them since 2014.
The Rays got a scare Wednesday when outfielder Steven Souza left the game after an awkward slide. However, X-rays came up negative, and he is listed as day-to-day with a left hip strain.
Souza has been one of the Rays’ most consistent bats this season. He is second on the team with 20 home runs, all off right-handers, and he is one off the team lead with 60 RBIs. He also is tied the team lead with a .369 on-base percentage.
Texas got a solid start from Hamels on Thursday but saw the bullpen struggle, something that will need to change if the Rangers want to get back on track.
“We’ve got to be better than that,” Rangers manager Jeff Banister said after the Thursday loss. “When you put five runs up (early), we have to find a way to play better baseball and limit the runs.”