The Tampa Bay Rays have proved early this season that regardless of where they play, they’re no longer the pushover they’d long been known as during their first decade in the major leagues.
But at Tropicana Field, they’re simply looking unbeatable.
The Rays, in first place in the AL East thanks to their fantastic pitching, will look for their 12th straight home win on Wednesday when they play the third of four games against the struggling New York Yankees.
Tampa Bay (23-16) has been one of the biggest surprises in baseball through the first six weeks, surging to seven games over .500 for the first time in the 11-year history of the franchise.
The Rays have won six straight overall - with five of those coming at home - and have won a franchise-record 11 in a row on their home field, allowing just two runs a game during their record streak.
The key to Tampa Bay’s success has been its pitching, which, thus far in the five-game homestand, has been nearly flawless. The Rays allowed only five runs in a three-game sweep of Los Angeles over the weekend, then kept their dominance going against the Yankees (19-21).
“It’s great to be (in first place), and a big part of it is the confidence derived from it,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Nobody’s cocky or complacent. Everybody’s coming to the ballpark with the right attitude.”
Tampa Bay began its homestand with its best pitching performance of the season, which is saying something considering it’s posted five shutouts from April 10-May 10. James Shields (4-2, 3.14 ERA) pitched his best game in the majors on Friday, a one-hit shutout of the Angels.
Shields was coming off a game in which he’d allowed seven runs in only 3 2-3 innings in a 12-4 loss at Boston.
“Shields was spectacular,” Maddon told the team’s official Web site. “He had command from the first pitch to the last one. Totally commanded it and gave us a chance to win.”
Unfortunately for the Rays, Shields has been anything but flawless against the Yankees. He’s 0-5 with a 7.83 ERA in five starts against New York, including a five-inning, two-run performance in a 2-0 road loss on April 6.
Right fielder Hideki Matsui is 6-for-10 lifetime against Shields with three home runs.
New York has been without Alex Rodriguez since April 28, though the star third baseman is expected to rejoin the team from the disabled list early next week. In the meantime, the Yankees’ offense continues to struggle.
What was supposed to be one of baseball’s best offenses has gone quiet lately, as New York has scored just 21 runs over its last seven games.
The Yankees were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position on Tuesday, and are 0-for-9 in the first two games of the series.
“We didn’t have a lot of opportunities,” manager Joe Girardi said. “But the few that we had, we squandered.”
Should New York’s offense continue to struggle against Shields, the job of Mike Mussina (5-3, 4.36) will be even harder. But after a shaky start to the season, Mussina is 4-0 with a 3.13 ERA in his last four starts.
Perhaps his best start in 2008, however, came against Tampa Bay. Mussina went six innings on April 7, allowing one run on two hits in a 6-1 win.