The Oakland Athletics hope to take advantage of one of their few soft spots in the schedule down the stretch as they open a three-game series Friday against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Tropicana Field.
The Athletics (80-59) have a 5 1/2-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels in the AL West and play them seven times over their final 23 games, including a season-ending four-game series on the road. Oakland also has a pair of three-game series against AL Central contenders Minnesota and reigning World Series champion Chicago.
Oakland had its streak of winning 11 consecutive series snapped by Texas, but avoided a three-game sweep with a 9-6 Wednesday in the series finale. Frank Thomas homered for the second consecutive game, and Mark Kotsay had a three-run double en route to matching his career high with four RBIs.
“We’ve got 20-something games left and know how important they are,” said Kotsay who’s playing through back spasms. “This is the stretch run. Not being to the postseason in my ninth season, I’m definitely doing everything to get on the field and trying to help contribute.”
Dan Haren (12-11, 3.88 ERA) hopes pitching against the Devil Rays (56-84), against whom he is 2-1 with a 1.57 ERA in three lifetime starts, will help snap him out of a recent funk. Haren, who limited Tampa to two runs and five hits in seven innings of Oakland’s 5-2 win Aug. 11, is 1-2 with an 8.15 ERA in his last three starts.
He allowed five runs in five innings Saturday in a 6-5 defeat to the Baltimore Orioles, including four in the first three innings.
“The early innings have given me trouble,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a focus thing, or something physical or mental. I’m going to take a look at it.”
Like the A’s, the Devil Rays enter this game having avoided a sweep. Tampa ended a 14-game losing streak to Minnesota with a 4-2 win Wednesday as Greg Norton and Ty Wigginton hit back-to-back homers in the seventh inning.
While Norton has homered twice in his last three starts, he is still trying to find a comfort zone at the plate.
“I was lucky,” Norton said. “I’m being serious. My swing has been horrible probably since the second game in Chicago. I couldn’t hit a fastball away to save my life the entire series.”
James Shields (6-6, 4.38) tries to extend his personal winning streak to three games and improve his record at Tropicana Field to 5-2. The rookie right-hander did not have a decision Sept. 1 despite holding the Mariners to one run and five hits in seven innings before Tampa pulled out a 2-1 victory.
“I had a lot of adrenaline (last Friday), and I felt like I was making some pretty good pitches,” Shields said.
The 24-year-old Shields has not allowed more than three runs in any of his last six starts and is 2-0 with a 2.42 ERA in his last four outings since ending a six-game losing streak. He is making his first-ever appearance against Oakland.