Empty seats and losing baseball have been hallmarks of Tampa Bay Rays games at Tropicana Field since the franchise’s inception 10 years ago.
Since they’ve started playing 90 miles up the road in Orlando, however, the Rays have done nothing but win.
Tampa Bay will look to remain perfect in six games at Disney’s Wide World of Sports on Thursday when it tries to complete a three-game sweep of the visiting Toronto Blue Jays.
The Rays (10-11) have finished last in the AL in home attendance every year since 2001, and have finished 42 games under .500 at their home in St. Petersburg in the last seven years.
Looking to boost their fan base in central Florida, the Rays signed on to play three home games at Disney’s Champions Stadium in 2007, and swept the Texas Rangers in mid-May.
With crowds mostly filling the 9,500-seat venue, Tampa Bay decided to return to Orlando this season, and the results have been just as impressive. The Rays - who are 4-7 at Tropicana Field - won their first game of 2008 at Disney on Tuesday, a come-from-behind 6-4 victory.
They rallied again on Wednesday, falling behind 3-0 before scoring four off Toronto ace Roy Halladay in the sixth en route to a 5-3 win over the Blue Jays (10-12), who have dropped three straight and six of eight.
“It is difficult to come from behind against him,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Halladay. “We’re very fortunate to be able to do it.”
Former Blue Jay Eric Hinske, signed to a minor-league contract in February after spending 2007 with Boston, has been the biggest surprise in Tampa Bay’s lineup.
Hinske went 3-for-4 with a home run against his former team on Tuesday, then drove in another run on Wednesday. He’s hitting .327 with five homers this season.
The Rays will send right-hander Andy Sonnanstine (2-1, 5.55 ERA) to the hill on Thursday. It will be difficult for Sonnanstine to pitch as impressively as he did in his last outing. He pitched a three-hitter on Saturday in a 5-0 win over the Chicago White Sox.
“Incredible,” Maddon said after the best outing of Sonnanstine’s two-year career. “Just pounded the strike zone with his fastball - mixed in his off-speed pitches appropriately.”
Toronto has lost three in a row for the third time in 2008. The Blue Jays have scored just 21 runs in their last seven games while batting .211 as a team.
They only mustered six hits on Wednesday, and were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
“We haven’t done a very good job of driving in that big run,” said right fielder Matt Stairs, who hit two homers. “We have a chance to bury a team and we haven’t done it.”
Toronto could use Alex Rios’ presence back in the lineup. The right fielder rested on Tuesday and sat out Wednesday’s game with flu-like symptoms. He was hitting .393 with two homers and seven RBIs in his last seven games.
The Blue Jays will try to end their latest slide by turning to Dustin McGowan (1-1, 3.38), who has pitched effectively in all four of his starts. He finally broke into the win column Saturday, when he held Detroit to two runs over seven innings in a 3-2 victory.
McGowan is 2-0 with a 3.58 ERA in four career starts against Tampa Bay. Rays first baseman Carlos Pena, however, is 4-for-10 with three homers lifetime versus McGowan.