Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 5/7/12
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. This wasnt exactly the way they envisioned jetting off to the Big Apple for this weeks three-game series against the New York Yankees. After such a dominant and momentum-building home stand, the Tampa Bay Rays stumbled in their final two weekend games against Oakland. On late Friday night, they boasted the best record in baseball at 19-8 with a chance to sweep the As, or at least head to New York powered by a fifth straight series win. Unfortunately for the Rays, the wheels wobbled unexpectedly with a pair of tough losses that snapped a six-game winning streak and ended a stretch in which theyd won 12 of 14 games. And in addition to rookie left-hander Matt Moores shaky outing Sunday blowing a 4-0 first-inning lead in a 9-5 defeat play-making leadoff man Desmond Jennings left the game early with a knee injury that could well sideline him for the series. There is one silver lining for the Rays when the set begins Tuesday night at 7:05, with ace James Shields (5-0, 3.05 ERA) dueling Ivan Nova (3-1, 5.58). For the first time in Rays history, legendary Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, a 12-time All-Star, will not be available. Rivera suffered a torn ligaments in his right knee Thursday while shagging fly balls prior to New Yorks game in Kansas City. That means the Yankees will turn either to David Robertson or 2010 hotshot Tampa Bay closer Rafael Soriano as the shutdown man. The Rays got to Rivera in the season-opener, spoiling a rare save opportunity for him to start the year off with a three-game sweep at the Trop. But any time they dont have to face the future Hall of Famer is a plus. The other good news: The Yankees havent exactly been tearing it up this season. Though they routed the Royals 10-4 on Sunday, they came into that series having lost two of three to Baltimore and currently find themselves in the AL Easts fourth spot at 15-13, leading only 11-16 Boston. Last week, they demoted struggling starter Freddy Garcia to the bullpen with an 0-2 mark and 12.51 ERA, elevating rookie reliever David Phelps into the rotation. Phelps (0-1) has been impressive in 21.2 innings of work, allowing 18 hits while striking out 19 and posting an ERA of 3.74. Hell square off against Jeff Niemann (2-3, 4.05) Wednesday night, with a rejuvenated David Price (5-1, 2.35) going up against Yankees ace CC Sabathia (4-0, 4.15) on Thursday. Tampa Bay still stands at 19-10 after twice falling short of becoming the majors' first team to 20 wins this season a half-game behind the upstart Baltimore Orioles (19-9) in the division. But now they head into a key early-season division showdown on the road against the Yankees, who would like nothing better than to put their season back on track against the Rays. Aside from their blow-out win Sunday, theyve struggled unexpectedly. First baseman Mark Teixeira found himself mired in a 5-for-28 span since the start of the Baltimore series and is hitting only .222, while power-hitting second baseman Robinson Cano has swatted only two homers so far with eight RBI. On the flip side, age-defying shortstop Derek Jeter, 37, has done his part to pick up the slack, leading the league in batting at .397 (with five homers). Center fielder Curtis Granderson remains a key to the lineup, hitting .284 with nine homers and 18 RBI. Right fielder Nick Swisher has also been a key contributor with seven homers and a .279 batting average, though hes been dealing with an injured left hamstring and is listed as day-to-day. The bigger health issue for the Yankees is the elbow injury to speedy left-fielder Brett Gardner, finishing a rehab assignment with Triple-A Scranton. According to GM Brian Cashman, Gardner on the DL since April 18 could be ready to play against the Rays either Wednesday or Thursday. Of course, the Rays have their own injury bug, and its a sizable one. Theyre without third baseman and team leader Evan Longoria an anchor of both the offense and defense at least until July as he recovers from a partial hamstring tear. The Rays proved they could survive just fine against lowly Seattle without Longoria, hitting .327 with four homers and 19 RBI when he was injured during an attempted steal of second base last Monday. But after the four-game sweep of the Mariners, they encountered difficulties against Oakland losing 4-3 in 12 innings Saturday night and failing to capitalize on their early four-run lead Sunday. The more immediate concern is the loss of Jennings, who has been a spark plug in the field and at the plate (.270 with two doubles, two triples and three homers, with eight stolen bases in nine attempts). The Rays can compensate by moving utility starter Ben Zobrist from second to right, where hes an excellent defender, and manning left field with Matt Joyce, another standout with the glove. That means a rotation system in the infield with some combination at third, short and second with Jeff Keppinger, Sean Rodriguez, Will Rhymes and Elliot Johnson with manager Joe Maddon making his decision based on individual pitching matchups. More could be known about Jennings status later today. In any event, its hardly an ideal situation heading into a series against the Yankees, followed by three games against Baltimore and two more in Toronto before returning home May 16 against Boston. The good news for the Rays is that theyve gotten strong performances from a number of other sources. B.J. Upton has on a hot streak since returning to the lineup from a back injury during spring training, hitting .333 (with four doubles and two homers). Keppinger continues his solid offense in a part-time role at .311, and lefty-hitting Joyce has been looking good both against righties and lefties. He upped his batting average to .292 Sunday with a 3-for-4 effort and has a .596 slugging percentage fueled by three doubles, three triples and six homers. The teams marque offseason additions, Carlos Pena and Luke Scott, have cooled off in the batting average department. But Pena (.252) has belted five doubles and five homers with 14 RBI, and Scott (.247) has six doubles, six homers and 21 RBI. Even Rhymes has made a good showing since his call-up last week, hitting .294 and playing well at third and second. What the Rays really need now is for their pitching to pick up the slack. That had been happening in a big way until Saturday, with the staff crafting a major league best ERA of 2.26 between April 19 and May 5 after sporting baseballs worst ERA at 6.75 prior to that. But Jeremy Hellickson lasted only 3.2 innings Saturday night, yielding five hits and three runs in his worst start of the season. And Moore followed with his poorest performance of 2012 on Sunday. Thats a mild concern, since the Rays need better showings from each pitcher to keep on track in the highly competitive AL East. It helps that theyll have both of their big guns, Shields and Price, in New York. Their five wins each are the most in the AL, and theyre also tied for the most wins in the majors with Lance Lynn of St. Louis and San Franciscos Madison Bumgarner. Its the first time since two pitchers have had at least five victories in the first 27 games since Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson did that for the 2006 Yankees. Furthermore, Shields and Price are the reasons why the Rays staff is now tied with the Yankees for the AL lead in strikeouts with 223. If youre looking for a key to success in their eight-game road swing, try this: the Rays record in the their past 42 games when scoring at least five runs is 41-1. After Mondays day off, Tampa Bay will play 16 straight games without a break. Without Longoria, and now possibly some key games without Jennings, the stretch could reveal a lot about the Rays and where theyre heading after such a promising start.
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