Series with Texas provides Rays with stout test

The road may have smiled upon the Tampa Bay Rays in their

last two cross-country swings — with 14 wins in 19 outings. But the going looks

potentially treacherous this week as they venture into the Lone Star State.

That’s because the Rays slipped on the way out the door over the weekend.

After a rejuvenating run of 14 wins in 17 games, they dropped two in a row to wild-card

rival Oakland at Tropicana Field. The timely hitting that had materialized in

droves during an 8-2 showing in their recent road swing and continued for four

games at home disappeared in losses of 5-4 and 4-2 to the A’s.

And now the Rays need to find the offensive groove in a hurry against the AL

West leaders, the Texas Rangers (75-52).

The good news for Tampa Bay as they open a three-game series Monday night in

Arlington is that the first-place New York Yankees are still well within reach

in the AL East. The Rays had pulled to within 2½ games on Friday night and

still only trail the Yankees by four, while holding a half-game lead as the No.

1 wild-card seed.

They’ve also fared remarkably well against the tough AL West, holding a 21-11

record this season. Since the return of third baseman Evan Longoria, activated

from the DL on Aug. 7, they’ve looked like a different team: posting a record

of 14-5 and outscoring opponents 101-48.

The Rays took two of three from the Rangers in Arlington when the teams last

met in April, their first series win there since September 2008.

Perhaps the biggest cause for optimism is the lights-out pitching staff, led

this Monday at 8:05 p.m. by big lefty David Price, in the midst of a Cy Young

Award-type of season. Price will take the mound one day after his 27th

birthday, putting his 16-4 record and 2.28 ERA on the line against left-hander

Derek Holland (8-6, 4.92).

Price’s ERA leads the majors and his win total is tied for most in the majors,

putting Price on track to finish in rare company.

In the past 50 years, only eight pitchers have finished the season leading

baseball in both categories, and all eight have won the Cy Young Award. And get

this: Only four AL Cy Young Award winners matched Price’s totals for wins, ERA

and strikeouts (228) through 25 starts.

This month, Price’s ERA has been a jaw-dropping 0.60 (two runs in 30 innings)

and he leads the AL with a 1.23 ERA since the All-Star break. That bodes well

for the Rays as they try to get off on a good foot in Texas, especially against

a dangerous offense like the Rangers boast.

Tuesday night at 8:05 p.m., they’ll put their fortunes in the right hand of

James Shields, who has continue to pitch well since the All-Star break with a

mark of 12-7 and 4.01 ERA. He’ll face right-hander Yu Darvish (12-9, 4.51).

Wednesday night at 7:05 p.m., Alex Cobb draws the start, coming off the first

complete-game shutout of his career in a four-hit, 5-0 win over Oakland. But

Texas counters with Matt Harrison, in the midst of a stellar season at 15-7

with a 3.04 ERA.

Pitching has been the backbone of Tampa Bay this season, and it remains the

team’s best hope now. The last four AL teams to finish season with an ERA as

low as the Rays (3.26) all went on to play in the World Series: the 1990 A’s

(3.18) lost, the 1989 A’s (3.09) won, the 1981 Yankees (2.90) lost and the 1978

Yankees (3.18) won.

Heading into Texas, the Rays’ pitching staff leads the league not only in ERA

but in strikeouts (1,055) and opponent’s batting average (.232). In fact,

they’re on pace for an AL-record 1,346 strikeouts, which would surpass the Yankees’

mark of 1,266 set in 2001.

The bullpen has been just as impressive, leading the majors with an ERA of 1.31

since the break. And over the last 35 games, since July 19, the pen has posted

an ERA of 0.88 with an opponent’s batting average of .161.

The unit is led by Fernando Rodney’s 39 saves and 0.77, both best in the

majors. Also of note: J.P. Howell continues to build on his franchise-record

scoreless innings streak, currently standing at 26.2, the longest active streak

in the big leagues.

The work of the starters and relievers is a big reason the Rays have built a

16-7 record this month, best in the majors. In spite of allowing nine runs in

the past two games against Oakland, the Rays have yielded just 76 runs over the

past 35 games.

How stingy is that? No team has allowed fewer runs in any 35-game span since

1968, when Cleveland gave up 68 and New York 72.

Of course, the Rays have also tightened up their uncharacteristically porous

defense in the past month and started hitting with confidence again, especially

with Longoria back in the lineup. One of the key changes by manager Joe Maddon

has been shifting second baseman/right fielder Ben Zobrist 17 games ago to

shortstop, a position he hadn’t played since July 25, 2009.

He’s started 13 of those last 17 at short, batting .362 (17-for-47) with six

doubles, a triple, three homers and eight RBI. That allowed Maddon more

flexibility in getting other hitters into the lineup.

With Longoria returning to third base with greater frequency, Luke Scott has

seen more action at DH and is in the midst of a season-high hitting streak of

nine games, batting .424 (14-for-33) in that run.

They’ll need all the offense — and pitching prowess — to handle Texas. From

there, the Rays play a weekend series against the Blue Jays. It should be a

good time to catch Toronto, which has lost seven in a row and sits dead last in

the East 56-70. But the Jays have a history of playing the spoiler down the

stretch.

Tampa Bay can ill afford any stumbles with a three-game series against the

Yankees awaiting when it returns to town next Monday through Wednesday. How the

Rays fare this week could substantially raise the stakes in that battle for the

AL East lead.