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.
Thats 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 straight 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 As.
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 2.5 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.
Theyve also fared remarkably well against the tough AL West, holding a 21-11 record this season. And since the return of third baseman Evan Longoria, activated from the DL on Aug. 7, theyve 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 since September 2008.
Yet perhaps the biggest cause for optimism is their 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 Prices totals for wins, ERA and strikeouts (228) through 25 starts.
This month, Prices ERA has been a jaw-dropping 0.60 (2 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., theyll 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. Hell face righthander 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 teams 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 As (3.18) lost, the 1989 As (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 opponents batting average (.232). In fact, theyre 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 opponents batting average of .161.
The unit is led by Fernando Rodneys 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 hadnt played since July 25, 2009.
Hes started 13 of those last 17 at short, batting .362 (17 for 47) with six doubles, a triple, three homers and eight RBI. And that has allowed Maddon more flexibility in getting other hitters into the lineup.
With Longoria returning to third base now 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.
Theyll 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 straight and sits dead last in the East 56-70. But the Jays have a history of playing the spoiler down the stretch.
And Tampa Bay can ill afford any stumbles with a three-game series against the Yankees awaiting when they return 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.