It’s only the end of April, but the division’s perennial cellar dwellers look like they might be ready to move out.
Sporting the longest winning streak in baseball, the Rays will look for their seventh straight victory on Tuesday in Baltimore as the two teams - in an unlikely tie for first place - begin a three-game series.
Tampa Bay (14-11) has finished last in the AL East in nine of its first 10 years in the league, and the Orioles (14-11) have been right ahead of the Rays in fourth place each time.
However, each team has gotten off to a surprising start in 2008, and Tampa Bay has established itself as baseball’s hottest team. The Rays have their longest winning streak since they won six straight from July 28-Aug. 3, 2005, and this is the latest in the season they’ve been three games over .500 in franchise history.
They’ve swept back-to-back series from AL East rivals, beating Toronto three times and then taking three from reigning World Series champion Boston - the Rays’ first-ever three-game sweep of the Red Sox.
“It’s a great feeling, but it’s very early in the season,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s not about winning. It’s how we did it, with the pitching and defense and we get the hits when we needed them. We’re playing the game right, and if you do that, you’ll win your share of games.”
Tampa Bay only gave up five runs to Boston in the series, which culminated with James Shields pitching a two-hit shutout on Sunday.
The Rays will give the ball to Jason Hammel (2-1, 4.32 ERA) to kick off their nine-game road trip, and he may have his rotation spot at stake. With ace Scott Kazmir due to join the club this weekend after missing the beginning of the season due to an elbow strain, someone will be left out of the rotation.
“As long as I continue to do what I do, I’ll have a job somewhere,” Hammel told the team’s official Web site. “I want to be a part of this, (and) this is awesome. But I’m not thinking about that, I’m thinking about keeping the ball down.”
Hammel was 0-3 with an 8.84 ERA in four career starts against Baltimore coming into this season. He allowed two runs in seven innings against the Orioles on April 12, but didn’t factor in the decision in the Rays’ 3-2 loss.
Baltimore has dropped its last two games after winning six of eight. On Monday, the Orioles’ series finale in Chicago was suspended by rain in the 11th inning with the score tied at 3.
The Orioles will send left-hander Garrett Olson (0-0, 0.00) to the mound Tuesday to replace the injured Adam Loewen. Olsen, who was 1-3 with a 7.79 ERA in limited work last season, was 1-1 with a 1.85 ERA this year in Triple-A.
He threw only 45 pitches in his last minor-league start, so he would be at full strength for his season debut in Baltimore.
“Everybody knows what we did with Olson,” Orioles manager Dave Trembley told the team’s official Web site. “I think he’s probably smart enough that somebody told him why he had an abbreviated start. Sometimes the ball is in your court - see what you do with it.”
The Rays have taken three of five games from Baltimore this season.