Rays try to reach .500 mark vs. surging Astros

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Can the Tampa Bay Rays, the hottest team in baseball, finally get back to .500 for the season?

All that is stopping them Thursday are the American League West-leading and defending World Series champion Houston Astros, who come to Tropicana Field for a four-game series.

Tampa Bay (39-40) hasn’t just won five straight — its pitching owns a scoreless streak of 22 innings since Giancarlo Stanton homered off Vidal Nuno in Sunday’s game against the New York Yankees.

The Rays are on their fourth winning streak of at least five games this season and can reach .500 for the third time this season and first instance since they were 26-26 following a 1-0 win at Oakland on May 28.

And as well as the Rays are playing, holding opponents to one run or less eight times in their last 14 games, the Astros (54-28) are still 17-3 in their last 20 games. One of those losses, ending a 12-game win streak last week, was a 2-1 setback against these same Rays.

Tampa Bay began its relievers-as-starters experiment on May 19 and manager Kevin Cash calls them “openers.” Since then, the Rays have the lowest ERA in baseball at 2.87, edging the Yankees (2.96).

“The pitching’s been outstanding, keeping us in every single ballgame,” Cash told reporters. “It’s kind of how we’re built. We’ve got to take advantage of it when we get it. And we’re getting it here of late.”

A big part of Tampa Bay’s effectiveness is reliever-turned-opener Ryne Stanek (1-1, 1.99) who gets the ball first for the Rays on Thursday.

Stanek has been dominant in his unique role in June — 10 games, 13 innings, only four hits and no earned runs. He faced the Astros on back-to-back days last week, oddly enough as a starter and reliever, throwing a combined 2 2/3 innings of hitless, shutout baseball.

The Astros head to Tampa Bay after taking two of three from the Toronto Blue Jays. Houston closed out the series Wednesday afternoon when Alex Bregman hit a two-run homer in the ninth for a 7-6 win.

Bregman went 3-for-5 and was 9-for-14 with three homers against the Blue Jays.

“Bregman’s pretty locked in the last couple of days,” Houston left-hander Dallas Keuchel told reporters. “That’s what he provides for our team, moments in the clutch.”

It will be a homecoming for Astros starter Lance McCullers (8-3, 3.82), who was born in Tampa and graduated from Tampa’s Jesuit High School. Still just 24, McCullers has already set a career high for wins and hasn’t taken a loss in his last five starts. Houston is 11-5 in his starts this season.

McCullers has pitched at Tropicana twice before, once each in 2015 and 2016, and each time, he’s allowed four earned runs in six innings for an 0-2 record and a 6.00 ERA in his career against the Rays.

The relievers-as-starters strategy is just part of Cash’s unconventional approach.

In Tuesday’s 1-0 win against the Nationals, Cash played a pitcher at first base for one out, shifting reliever Jose Alvarado to first to avoid having to make a situational pitching change. Chaz Roe got the out with Alvarado manning first (with a runner to hold no less), and while Alvarado gave up two hits in his return to the mound, Sergio Romo got the final outs and the Rays outdueled Max Scherzer for a memorable win.

This four-game series wraps up a daunting 16-game run for the Rays in which they had seven games each against the Astros and Yankees (and two against the Nationals). And yet, somehow, they’re 7-5 in those games with four remaining.

From there, the schedule eases up, as Tampa Bay goes on the road to face the Miami Marlins and the New York Mets. The Astros have two games at the Texas Rangers, but then close the first half of the season with 11 straight games at home before the All-Star break.