The Devil Rays look to win their season-high fourth straight home game Monday night when they open a three-game series against the reeling Orioles.
Just two weeks ago, it appeared the Orioles would again finish fourth in the East while the Devil Rays would occupy last for the ninth time in 10 seasons. Tampa Bay (56-81), however, has won eight of its last 10 overall, taking two of three on the road from the playoff-hopeful New York Yankees over the weekend.
“The level that we’re pitching at now and the level that our bullpen is at right now really permits us to win games that we were not able to win last year,” Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Baltimore (59-76), meanwhile, has lost 11 of its last 12 games, posting a 9.25 ERA and .251 batting average during that span.
Pena’s homer was his sixth in eight games and his 34th of the season, tying the franchise record set by Jose Canseco in 1999 and matched by current Oriole Aubrey Huff in 2003.
“I’m so happy that I’ve been able to contribute,” Pena said. “In a game like today, it just feels good to know that you helped the ballclub out.”
During their 8-2 stretch, the Devil Rays are batting .324 and averaging 8.8 runs per game. That includes 28 runs scored during a three-game sweep at Baltimore.
Besides Pena, Delmon Young and B.J. Upton have also been key contributors lately. Young is batting .432 (19-for-44) with a homer and seven RBIs in those 10 games while Upton is hitting .390 (16-for-41) with four home runs and 13 RBIs.
One day after they were no-hit by Boston rookie Clay Buchholz, the Orioles lost the series finale 3-2 on Sunday.
Baltimore failed to score despite loading the bases with no outs in the fourth inning.
“Nothing’s working for us now,” Huff said. “If there are baseball gods, they’re certainly frowning on us.”
Huff, who played for Tampa Bay from 2000-2006, is batting .365 (19-for-52) with six home runs and 12 RBIs in 14 games this season against his former team.
James Shields (10-8, 4.10) looks to beat the Orioles for the first time. The right-hander is 0-1 with a 4.07 ERA in six career starts against Baltimore, going 0-1 with a 3.60 ERA in four outings this season. He gave up four runs and 10 hits in eight innings Wednesday in Tampa Bay’s 5-4, 12-inning victory at Camden Yards.
Shields had held opponents to three earned runs or fewer in six straight starts before Wednesday. He is 2-2 with a 3.06 ERA in seven appearances since allowing a career-high 10 runs on July 22 in a 21-4 loss at Yankee Stadium.
With their rotation in disarray, Kurt Birkins (1-1, 8.00) will make his first major league start for the Orioles.
Since ace Erik Bedard is nursing a strained right oblique and Steve Trachsel was recently traded to the Chicago Cubs, Baltimore is forced to start Birkins, who has made 45 career relief appearances the last two seasons. The left-hander, who was a starter for the vast majority of his minor league career, has shuttled between the Orioles and Triple-A Norfolk this year.
Birkins gave up one run in three innings on Friday, and will be limited to around 90 pitches.