Rays have chance to make statement on road

April 9, 2012

If sweeping three games against the New York Yankees served as powerful opening remarks for the 2012 campaign, the Tampa Bay Rays now have the opportunity to make a real statement.

They’ll get that chance on a challenging 10-day, three-city road trip that starts Tuesday in Detroit against the powerhouse Tigers.

After three afternoon contests at Comerica Park, the Rays head to Boston to visit the archrival Red Sox for four more day games, and then travel to Toronto to take on the often-explosive Blue Jays in three night showdowns.

We’re about to learn a lot more about the team that started the season with an unexpected TKO of the highly touted Yankees.

That’s not to take anything away from the Rays’ achievement in beating New York 7-6, 8-6 and 3-0 before two jubilant Tropicana Field sellouts and the near-capacity crowd Sunday afternoon that witnessed Jeremy Hellickson’s gem. But now comes a truly daunting test.

The good news for Tampa Bay is that its listless spring-training offense came alive over the opening weekend with a team batting average of .302. Other than a rough Friday night start by James Shields and the Saturday relief outing by Josh Lueke, the pitching from the rotation and bullpen was outstanding. The signature defense was mostly excellent, particularly in a handful of well-timed shifts that foiled potential Yankees rallies.

And by now, the whole country has heard about the triumphant return of first baseman Carlos Pena, who followed his game-winning Opening Day heroics with a hot bat throughout the series.

The Rays are on a roll out of the gate and have won a club-record seven games in a row against New York. Despite injuries to starting center fielder B.J. Upton, de facto closer Kyle Farnsworth and key bench player Sam Fuld, they’re playing with the energy and emotion that fueled their landmark run last September.

That certainly makes the impending road swing a little less ominous than, say, if they'd dropped two of three to New York. The Rays are a team that feeds on the sense of self-belief instilled in them by manager Joe Maddon. And the confidence they built from their weekend success should serve them well as they head out of town and into the lion’s den — or, in this case, the Tigers’ lair.

They’ll need all the help they can get, especially if the tight hamstring that knocked free-agent slugger Luke Scott out of the game early Sunday keeps him out of action this week or longer. Scott made his presence felt with a 3-for-4 outing at the plate Saturday, including a double and three RBI that made the difference in the two-run victory. Scott’s absence leaves a formidable hole. His stand-in, Durham call-up Steve Vogt, hasn’t yet found his groove, and Elliot Johnson remains a sub-Mendoza Line hitter.

The reality is that the next 16 road games and 24 of the first 27 will serve as a barometer for Tampa Bay. All of them come against teams that were .500 or better last year. This month alone, they will face each of the AL’s top five offenses from 2011: the Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers, Tigers and Jays.

The first task takes place Tuesday at 1:05 p.m. ET, when hotshot rookie Matt Moore takes on Rick Porcello. Moore, 22, took the Rays by storm after his Sept. 12 call-up last year. In two starts — including his postseason win over the Rangers and first major league start on Sept. 22 in New York against the Yankees — he pitched a combined 12 scoreless innings and allowed just six hits. Porcello is coming off his second 14-9 showing in the past three seasons, along with a 4.75 ERA.

The Tigers aren’t likely to make it easy on the Rays, or any team, for that matter. They’ve also started 3-0, disposing of the Red Sox 3-2, 10-0 and then 13-12 in a wild, come-from-behind win in the bottom of the 11th inning Sunday on Alex Avila’s two-run homer. Avila and prize free-agent acquisition Prince Fielder each have two homers so far, behind the three from Miguel Cabrera (whose three-run blast in the bottom of the ninth tied the score 10-10 on Sunday).

Detroit is hitting .345 as a team, paced by leadoff man Austin Jackson’s .571 (8 for 14) clip. The pitching staff features 2011 AL Cy Young Award-winner Justin Verlander, who allowed two hits in eight innings against Boston on Opening Day. Verlander will face Rays ace James Shields on Wednesday, with each looking for his first win of the season. The series closes out Thursday with Jeff Niemann taking the mound for Tampa Bay and left-hander Drew Smyly going for the Tigers.

Who knows what shape the reeling Red Sox will be in by the time the Rays hit town. Picking up where they left off last September, they play their next three games in Toronto. The Jays beat Boston in three of four at home last September to contribute to the club’s epic collapse. And now new manager Bobby Valentine and his struggling Sox face a team that enjoyed baseball’s best mark in spring training at 24-7 and took two of three from Cleveland to start the season.

The focus for the Rays, meanwhile, is to stay in the moment.

“We try not to get too far ahead of ourselves,” Pena said after Sunday’s win. “. . . One thing we must look at is that we play game by game.”

As remarkably well as the first three went, the next 10 could make a strong statement indeed.