It took a postgame concert to draw a rare sellout crowd to Tropicana Field on Saturday.
If the Tampa Bay Rays keep pitching like they have - and winning more often than any other AL team - their play will become more and more difficult to ignore.
The Rays will look to cap another dominant homestand with a seventh consecutive home series victory when they finish their four-game set with the Chicago White Sox on Sunday.
Sparse crowds like the 14,679 that saw Friday’s 2-1 win have been common this season in St. Petersburg, but the AL-leading Rays (34-22) have still managed to win nearly 90 percent of their home games in the last six weeks.
Since dropping two of three to the White Sox (30-25) from April 18-20, they’ve won 19 of 22 at home, while shutting out five opponents over that span. Their third sellout of the season - a crowd of 36,048 - witnessed Saturday’s 2-0 victory as six pitchers combined on a four-hitter, moving the Rays to 7-2 on their current homestand.
“We’re very confident, it feels like we can win every game,” starter Scott Kazmir told the Rays’ official Web site. “We really as a team knew we had something special coming into spring training and now we’re putting it all together.”
After Kazmir tossed seven innings of three-hit ball, five pitchers shared the load for the final two innings. Dan Wheeler, Trever Miller and Grant Balfour - who got his first career save - each recorded an out in the ninth as the Rays used a true closer-by-committee with Troy Percival on the disabled list.
“I have no problem with any of these guys coming in,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “I think any of them can get the last out.”
With a 13-inning shutout streak entering Sunday, the Rays haven’t had many problems getting outs at any time recently - except when Andy Sonnanstine has been on the mound.
Tampa Bay has won nine of its last 12 games overall, but Sonnanstine (6-3, 4.98 ERA) has accounted for two of those losses while allowing 14 runs over 11 innings. Although only two were earned, he gave up seven runs in the first two innings against Texas in Tuesday’s 12-6 defeat.
Sonnanstine pitched his only career complete game against the White Sox on April 19, allowing three hits in the Rays’ 5-0 victory.
He’ll face a struggling Chicago offense that averaged just 3.7 runs in May while getting shut out five times. In the last two games, the White Sox have stranded 16 runners while producing just one run.
“The positive thing you can look at on the offensive side is we’re getting guys on,” third baseman Joe Crede said. “It’s frustrating and tough. … We might be trying to do too much up there. I think it will come around.”
Mark Buehrle (2-6, 5.27) is also hoping to turn around his fortunes coming off his shortest outing since opening day. The left-hander gave up seven runs - six earned - in five innings at Cleveland on Tuesday.
Buehrle took the loss against Sonnanstine on April 19, when he allowed five runs and a season-high 12 hits in seven innings. He has surrendered five runs or more in five of his 11 starts this season.