Rays start interleague play vs. streaking Braves

ST. PETERSBURG — In one respect, the Tampa Bay Rays have history on their side as they begin interleague play Friday night with a weekend series against the Atlanta Braves.

They went 12-6 last season playing against National League teams, ranking third in the majors and third-best in franchise history. And while the franchise is only 118-132 against the NL, under manager Joe Maddon the record stands at 62-46.

That’s the good news for Rays. The bad is that they always seemed to struggle against the Braves.

Their all-time record in the series is 6-15, the worst showing they’ve had against any team other than Cincinnati (1-5).  They’ve only won one of their seven series with the Braves, and that was 11 years ago at Turner Field.

But this year looks about as well-matched as any between Tampa Bay and Atlanta. For starters, they sport identical records at 24-15 – good for second place in the AL East for the Rays and first place in the NL East for the Braves.

And both teams are coming into the series playing well lately. The Rays have won four of their last five, the only setback coming Thursday night in their 5-3 loss to Boston in a series split; the Braves have won five of their last seven, including a series split with the Marlins.

Friday’s 7:10 p.m. matchup will feature Tampa Bay ace James Shields (6-1, 3.52 ERA) against Tommy Hanson (4-3, 3.43). The big question revolves around Saturday’s 4:10 p.m. contest, because the Rays have yet to announce who’ll start in place of injured Jeff Niemann, who suffered a broken leg on a line drive Monday in Toronto,

The likely candidates would be call-ups from Durham: either Alex Cobb, who pitched well for the Rays prior to his season-ending rib surgery last year, or Chris Archer, who has yet to show the club what he can do at the major-league level. It’s also possible that former starter Wade Davis could get the call out of the bullpen, though that seems less likely because the Rays like the job he’s doing there and might be hesitant to disrupt his routine.

The Braves will be going with Randall Delgado (2-3, 3.79) on Saturday, with David Price (6-2, 3.10) facing off against Tommy Hudson (2-1, 3.96) Sunday at 1:40 p.m.

Meanwhile, Maddon says he was encouraged by the performance of rookie southpaw Matt Moore on Thursday, despite allowing a run in each of the first three innings and dropping to 1-4 for the year with a 5.20 ERA.

The reason: Moore battled through his rough start, in which he threw 68 pitches over the first three innings, and threw only 38 over his final three frames to record his first quality start since April 10. Along the way, he retired 10 straight batters and 13 of his last 14, showing the kind of poise and confidence that marked his debut late last season and in the playoffs. And he finished with eight strikeouts and one walk, though that one pushed home a run in the first.

“I’m happy with his progress – one walk, eight punch-outs,” Maddon said. “I thought he finished really strong and that’s definitely a game to build off of right there. I wanted him to go back out there for the sixth because he was throwing fine — actually he was throwing better than he had been. … Confidence is a big thing, and I know that he is going to sleep better. In spite of the loss, he’s going to feel better about himself because he knows he commanded his pitches and had better command of his fastball.”

Moore agreed: “If you take into consideration how early in the game I dug a hole for us, I feel like some adjustments were made for me to start attacking more, especially at guys we were nibbling at prior.”

The big disappointed for the Rays was their inability to take advantage of scoring opportunities. They left 12 runners on base, with struggling DH Luke Scott alone accounting for seven of those – including six in scoring position. He’s had only one hit in his last 10 at bats with runners in scoring position, despite still leading the Rays in RBI with 27.

“Some nights it doesn’t want to work,” Maddon said. “(Scott) hit a bases-loaded bullet right at the first baseman and worked good at-bats, he just didn’t have the fortuitous break tonight.

“Nevertheless, it’s something that’s going to happen, and it’s something we always have to work on. We have left some runners on base and we had opportunities tonight to win that game. Again, I’m really pleased with our guys. The fight was there. We had an opportunity to crawl back into that game, and we did. We had a chance to tie it up. I love that. I love that about our group. It was a tough night in a lot of ways, especially leaving guys on base like we were talking about, but I love the fight.”

With nine players on the disabled list, they’ll need to keep fighting against a talented Braves team. The lineup features play-making centerfielder Michael Bourn, leading the club in hitting at .339 with 12 stolen bases; left fielder Martin Prado (.319); future Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones, playing well (.306, five homers) despite his intention to retire at age 40 after the season; and power-hitting second baseman Dan Uggla (.277, five homers).  

The Braves boast the fourth-highest batting average in the majors, .272, behind only the Rangers, Cardinals and Red Sox. Tampa Bay, by comparison, is 18th at .248.

Atlanta also has the NL’s leading pitcher, Brandon Beachy (5-1, 1.33 ERA), though the Rays won’t have to face him this time around. Atlanta’s pitching staff as a whole ranks 19th in baseball in team ERA at 4.09, well behind the 15th-place Rays at 3.69.

It should be noted that since April 21, Tampa Bay’s pitching staff has compiled a 2.74 ERA, the best in the majors. In that span, the Rays have gone 17-7. Their unofficial closer, Fernando Rodney, is tied for second in saves, having converted all 12 of his attempts this season (behind only Baltimore’s Jim Johnson, who is 13-for-13).

The Rays have one more piece of history on their side as they head into the series. The AL won the 2011 interleague campaign with a record of 131-121, marking the eighth  straight season it has prevailed over the NL.

“Atlanta’s a very good ball club, and they’re going to present a lot of different problems,” Maddon said. “We’re going to start studying them a lot more tonight and tomorrow. … but we’ll be ready.”