Rays hope to ride Snell’s pace versus Astros

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays were a wobbly 34-40 on June 20, but have pitched their way back to .500 mostly without true starting pitchers.

On Saturday, five relievers combined to outduel Justin Verlander in a 5-2 victory, and as the series wraps up Sunday, the Rays are on even footing with the pitching-dominant Houston Astros on the mound.

“It’s pretty remarkable what they’ve strung together here as of late, and today was no different,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said after Saturday’s win.

The Rays turn to their best starter of the first half in Blake Snell, who looks to be a first-time All-Star with a 10-4 record and a 2.31 ERA.

Snell has taken only one loss in his last eight starts, and was superb against the Astros on June 19, throwing seven innings and holding a potent lineup to one run and three hits in a 2-1 victory. He managed to survive seven walks, including three in one scoreless inning, getting key double plays to work his way out of predicaments.

In his last seven starts, Snell has a 1.27 ERA. He is 1-1 with a 5.21 ERA in four career starts against Houston.

The Rays, who have been above .500 for only three days all season, face a stiff challenge Sunday in Astros right-hander Charlie Morton.

Morton (10-1, 2.54) hopes to continue a career resurrection since coming to Houston. Before arriving, he was 46-71 in his career. Since joining the Astros, he’s 24-8 in two seasons with a career-low ERA this year and a career-best strikeout rate of 11.5 per nine innings.

Morton is 3-0 in his last four games, with three earned runs allowed in his last 19 innings and none in his last two starts. He faced the Rays on June 20 and dominated, throwing six innings and holding Tampa Bay to two hits and one unearned run. He was even better in his last start, holding Toronto scoreless in seven innings while striking out 13, one off his season and career high.

Houston manager A.J. Hinch doesn’t like playing at Tropicanaa Field, and his team’s bats have been stifled in all three games, including Thursday’s 1-0 victory. The Astros have lost eight games this season with Verlander starting, and in six of those losses, they’ve scored a total of five runs.

“I hate the results at this ballpark, if you look back at what we’ve done,” Hinch said. “Those are facts. It is what it is. We have another game (Sunday). We need to figure it out before then.”

Astros standout Alex Bregman said the stadium has given Houston problems, but some of the credit should go to Rays pitchers, who have given them fits this weekend.

“I don’t know if it’s the ballpark. I think they just have a good staff,” Bregman said. “They have been playing really good ball as of late.”