(AP) — Tampa Bay Rays slugger Carlos Pena said his impressive power surge has made baseball fun again.
Helping the Rays win their sixth straight series against the Florida Marlins would probably be pretty enjoyable as well.
Pena will try to move a step closer to tying major league history by homering in his seventh consecutive game as the Rays finish a three-game set against the Marlins on Sunday at Tropicana Field.
Last season, the All-Star first baseman hit 39 home runs to tie the New York Yankees’ Mark Teixeira for the AL lead, but he was batting .169 with eight homers in his first 55 games this season.
Pena’s fortunes changed after he broke out of a 2-for-30 slump by going 2 for 5 with a solo home run at Texas last Sunday. He’s homered seven times over a team-record six consecutive games.
Pena’s two-run shot in the first inning of Saturday night’s 6-5 win over the Marlins helped him surpass Jose Canseco’s five-game run from May 16-21, 1999, and left him two games shy of the major league record – shared by Dale Long, Don Mattingly and Ken Griffey Jr.
“I’m really enjoying this,” Pena told the Rays’ website. “It brings back the fun of it instead of the struggle of it. More like I’m enjoying the game because I feel like I’m participating in a great way.”
Pena’s hot streak has helped AL-best Tampa Bay (40-22) emerge from a 4-8 stretch with four wins in those six games. The Rays hit .234 and were outscored 64-47 in that 12-game rut.
Since then, they’ve batted .323 and outscored opponents 45-28.
If Jeff Niemann can add to his strong start, the Rays might not need too many runs. The right-hander is coming off his best performance of the season, a two-hit shutout of Toronto on Tuesday night that helped him improve to 6-0 with a 2.48 ERA.
He matched the Rays’ team record by winning his first six decisions in a season, joining James Shields (2007) and reliever J.P. Howell (2008). Another victory Sunday would help him match Mark Hendrickson’s franchise-best run from July 31-Sept. 25, 2005.
Niemann allowed one run and four hits over six innings last May 23 against the Marlins but did not get a decision in a 10-3 win.
This time, he’ll face a Florida team that’s dropped 13 of 21 overall and eight of 11 on the road.
The Marlins (30-32) will start Chris Volstad (3-6, 4.48), who is 0-4 in his last six starts. The right-hander had one of his worst outings of the season earlier this week, giving up six runs and eight hits over four-plus innings Tuesday night in Philadelphia. However, he managed to avoid the defeat in the 10-8 loss.
“With two outs, two times, (Volstad) gave up runs,” manager Fredi Gonzalez told the Marlins’ official website. “That’s stuff we need to correct.”
Volstad will try to avoid matching Burke Badenhop’s team-worst losing streak with help from a red-hot Chris Coghlan. The outfielder, from nearby Tarpon Springs, Fla., has batted .510 (26 for 51) during his 12-game hit streak but is 0 for 1 with one walk in his career against Niemann.
Pena is 1 for 3 with a solo homer versus Volstad and will try to help the Rays get their 14th win in 17 games against the Marlins.