Lou Piniella led Tampa Bay to the best record in franchise history in 2004— just 70 wins and its only finish outside last place.
When he returns to his hometown on Tuesday, he’ll find a much-improved team with a different name that’s on pace to put a decade of losing behind it.
Piniella leads the Chicago Cubs, owners of the best record in baseball, on their first trip to Tropicana Field to open a three-game set with the surprising Rays on Tuesday night.
The fiery Piniella led Tampa Bay from 2003-05, but all the two-time AL manager of the year could do with the then-Devil Rays was guide them to a .404 winning percentage in three seasons.
They spent two more years in the AL East cellar under current manager Joe Maddon, but after changing their name prior to 2008, the Rays (40-29) may have also shed their reputation as a perennial doormat.
“They’re doing well,” Piniella told Tampa Bay’s official Web site. “The pitching is much better, and I think that’s why you see the Rays are playing better.”
Tampa Bay’s ace will face the Cubs (45-25) in the opener. Scott Kazmir (6-2, 1.74 ERA) started the season on the disabled list with an elbow strain, but has been outstanding since he returned to the rotation in early May.
He retired the first 14 Angels he faced on Wednesday, but left after 6 2-3 innings having allowed three runs while striking out 10. The Rays’ 4-2 loss ended Kazmir’s six-game winning streak.
Kazmir made his major league debut as a 20-year-old in August 2004 with Piniella as his manager.
“He’s just a guy who will tell you straight up what he thought about you,” said Kazmir, who led the AL with 239 strikeouts last season. “That motivated a lot of guys. … I look forward to seeing him.”
What Kazmir will also see is the NL’s highest-scoring offense. Chicago averages 5.5 runs, though it puts up nearly two runs more at home than on the road, where it’s 16-17.
The Cubs have looked better away from home lately, winning each of their last two series. They took two of three in Toronto over the weekend, capped by a 7-4 win on Sunday.
Ted Lilly pitched six shutout innings, extending the streak of Cubs pitchers allowing three earned runs or fewer to seven games. Ryan Dempster (8-2, 2.81) will try to continue that run on Tuesday, and seems in good position to do so.
Dempster, who was Chicago’s closer the past three seasons, has allowed more than three runs just twice this year. He tossed a four-hitter with 11 strikeouts on Wednesday in a 7-2 win over Atlanta.
“He’s more experienced (and) he’s added some pitches,” Piniella said of Dempster. “(He came to spring training) in shape, and he was on a mission, and he’s gotten off to a great start.”
Dempster has a better ERA in five road starts (2.59) than in nine home outings (2.93), where he’s 8-0.
He’ll have a challenge getting his first road victory in St. Petersburg, where the Rays are 22-4 since April 22. They’ve won eight straight series there, though they failed to complete their fifth sweep on Sunday by falling 9-3 to Florida.