The major league-leading Chicago Cubs arrived at Tampa hoping to build some momentum heading into their highly anticipated weekend series against their cross-town rival.
The Rays have had other ideas.
Tampa Bay looks to become the first team to sweep the Cubs when these teams wrap up their three-game set Thursday night at Tropicana Field.
After defeating Chicago 3-2 in manager Lou Piniella’s return to Tampa Bay (42-29) on Tuesday, the Rays won 5-4 Wednesday.
Second-place Tampa Bay is two games back of AL East-leading Boston, while the Cubs have a 3 1/2-game lead over second-place St. Louis in the NL Central.
“We’re a good team. Everybody knows we’re a good team now,” said Rays closer Troy Percival, who earned his 17th save Wednesday. “We’re not sneaking up on anybody anymore.”
Chicago (45-27) came to Tampa Bay as winners of six of seven, but is now in danger of getting swept for the first time since losing to Arizona in the 2007 playoffs. The Cubs, who open a three-game set against the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox on Friday at Wrigley Field, are the only team in the majors that has not lost three straight games all season.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has won nine straight home series, winning 24 of 28 in that span.
The Rays are one victory away from setting a new club record for wins before the All-Star break. They were 42-45 at the break under Piniella in 2004 en route to winning a franchise-best 70 games.
On Wednesday, B.J. Upton, Eric Hinske, Evan Longoria and Willy Aybar all drove in runs during Tampa Bay’s four-run third inning, and the Rays another set of solid performances from their relief pitchers. Tampa Bay’s bullpen has earned the win in both games of this series, allowing two runs and five hits in 8 1-3 innings.
James Shields (4-5, 3.91 ERA) takes the ball in the series finale for the Rays, as he makes his first start in a week after serving a six-game suspension.
On June 5, Shield was ejected in a game at Boston when he hit Red Sox outfielder Coco Crisp with a pitch leading to a bench-clearing brawl.
In his first start since, Shields gave up six runs, 10 hits and struck out a season-high nine in eight innings of a 6-1 complete-game loss to the Los Angeles Angels last Thursday.
The right-hander has been stellar at home, going 3-1 with a 1.72 ERA in seven starts with two complete games.
This will be his first career start against the Cubs.
Chicago’s Kosuke Fukudome hit in the leadoff spot for the first time Wednesday, and Piniella would like to keep the rookie there until Alfonso Soriano, who is out with a broken left hand, returns from the disabled list. Fukudome doubled in a run and also scored once Wednesday.
Soriano isn’t the only Cub that is banged-up. Outfielder Reed Johnson sat out Wednesday with back stiffness, Jim Edmonds left the game in the fourth inning with left foot soreness and staff ace Carlos Zambrano left after 6 2-3 innings with shoulder discomfort, and is flying to Chicago Thursday to have an MRI.
Sean Gallagher (3-3, 4.54) looks to help the Cubs avoid the sweep when he makes his first career start against the Rays.
Gallagher gave up three runs, seven hits and struck out five in five-plus innings of a 3-2 loss to Toronto on Saturday. All the damage was done in the third inning as he served up back-to-back homers.
“I let a few things get away from me,” said Gallagher, who has dropped his last two starts after winning his previous two outings. “I’ll learn from this and take it to the next one.”