Series with Texas provides Rays with stout test

Series with Texas provides Rays with stout test

Published Aug. 27, 2012 5:12 p.m. ET

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

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.