Blue Jays-Rays Preview

A week filled with missed opportunities has not helped the Tampa

Bay Rays’ quest to reach the postseason. Facing Toronto’s Ricky

Romero might further dampen their playoff hopes.

The Rays continue their pursuit of the AL wild card while trying

to avoid a fourth consecutive loss to the Blue Jays ace Saturday

night at Tropicana Field.

Tampa Bay (86-71) was riding high after taking three of four at

Boston last weekend to move within two games of the wild-card

leading Red Sox. However, while the Red Sox followed by losing

three of four to last-place Baltimore, the Rays dropped three of

four at Yankee Stadium and fell 5-1 to Toronto on Friday. They now

find themselves 2 1/2 games behind Boston, which had its Friday

game in New York postponed by rain.

“It’s not going to be easy. It hasn’t been easy, and that’s

OK,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “We’re learning a lot of

lessons about ourselves right now.”

With five games remaining and the Los Angeles Angels also in the

wild-card picture, Tampa Bay’s margin for error is getting

slim.

“Come back (Saturday) and get back on the right track,” Maddon

said. “We’re running out of time, but there is time. We’ve got to

come back play our normal game.”

After pounding out 17 hits in a 15-8 win at New York on

Thursday, the Rays managed only two hits from Matt Joyce and one

from Casey Kotchman as they dropped their second straight to

Toronto (80-77) following a five-game winning streak in the

series.

Joyce is 8 for 19 with six RBIs in his last six games, but 0 for

9 against Romero (15-10, 2.98 ERA).

The left-hander is 3-1 with a 2.25 ERA and won three straight

starts versus Tampa Bay this season. He was stellar in his only

start at Tropicana Field this year when the only hit he allowed

over eight innings was a homer to Desmond Jennings in a 3-1 win

Aug. 2.

Trying to set a career high for victories in his final start of

2011, Romero is 8-1 with a 2.50 ERA in his last 11 starts. He gave

up a pair of home runs in nine innings of a 3-2, 10-inning win over

the Angels on Monday.

“I feel strong. I feel about as strong as I did opening day,”

Romero said.

Scheduled Tampa Bay starter Jeff Niemann (11-7, 3.95) has not

felt physically strong of late after he was scratched from his

intended start Thursday in New York with back stiffness. He’s

healthy enough to take the ball looking for his third straight

winning start in this contest.

“This is not a drastic change for anything, and it will give me

two extra days,” Niemann told the Rays’ official website. “It’s

just something that kind of crept up. It’s just part of the

deal.”

Niemann has allowed two runs in each of his last two starts, the

most recent over five innings of a 4-3 win at Boston last Saturday.

The right-hander is 1-1 with a 5.23 ERA against Toronto this

year.

Kelly Johnson, 2 for 6 versus Niemann, homered and drove in two

runs Friday for the Blue Jays, who have won 11 of 17. The veteran

second baseman is 8 for 19 with four RBIs in his last five

games.