Pivotal Orioles-Rays series begins Monday (Jul 24, 2017)

BY AP • July 24, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The final week of July is a dangerous time for middling baseball teams, knowing a single series can change a club from being a buyer to a seller at the trade deadline, or vice versa.

That stands for both teams as the Tampa Bay Rays, suddenly mired in a four-game losing streak, play host to the Baltimore Orioles, who find themselves 3 1/2 games back of the Rays entering the clubs' three-game series that starts Monday.

Third-place Tampa Bay is 3 1/2 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox in the American League East and tied for the second AL wild-card spot. The Orioles are among nine teams within five games of a wild-card position.

"I think you're always in a mode of what's best for the team and the organization in the short and long term," Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said. "The best deals are the ones that are best short-term and long-term."

The last time the Rays faced the Orioles, Tampa Bay took two of three at Camden Yards to start a 10-4 run that propelled the Rays to the top wild-card spot. However, a three-game sweep at the hands of the Texas Rangers puts them back in the middle of a wild-card logjam. Could a bad week make them consider parting with starter Alex Cobb or any other key parts rather than bolstering their bullpen to help their chances down the stretch?

"It's tough. We'd put ourselves right where we wanted to coming home, and just haven't been able to get it done this series," said reliever Brad Boxberger, who gave up two home runs in the eighth inning Sunday and took the loss as Texas beat Tampa Bay 6-5.

"The way these three days have unfolded is not ideal," Rays manager Kevin Cash said after the Sunday loss. "I totally believe we can bounce back with a good series, without a doubt. We're going to play good baseball and get those big hits. Make the big pitches, and we'll be fine."

The Rays now have to hope for a spark from Monday starter Blake Snell, who is 0-5 with a 4.98 ERA this season. In his only career appearance against Baltimore, he gave up six hits and four runs in 4 1/3 innings in a start last season.

Snell, 24, went to the minors after seven starts for the Rays this season and pitched well there from mid-May to mid-June, but he hasn't gotten back to the form that made him one of the top pitching prospects in baseball in 2015.

Baltimore opens the series with right-hander Kevin Gausman (6-7, 6.11 ERA), having salvaged the finale against the Houston Astros with a 9-7 win on Sunday.

Gausman is 4-4 with a 4.21 ERA in 12 career appearances, including 10 starts, against Tampa Bay. In his only start against the Rays this season, he pitched seven scoreless innings, giving up just two hits while picking up the win on July 2.

The Orioles went 5-5 over a 10-game homestand since the All-Star break. They took two of three games from the Rays in each of the teams' first two series before Tampa Bay took two of three before the All-Star break.

"There are three games we just lost that we should have won," said Rays outfielder Steven Souza, who struck out to end the Sunday game with two runners on in the ninth. "Are they frustrating losses? Absolutely, but if we thought we were going to win every single series and sweep everyone the rest of the season, then you guys are all a little bit out of your mind.

"The goal is to make it to the playoffs. We need to be consistent, and this is a little hurdle that we just have to get over and we'll be fine."

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