Tampa Bay (45-31) at Miami (40-36)

Cloudy Currently: Miami Gardens, FL
Temp: 76° F
  • Game info: 7:10 pm EDT Wed Jun 25, 2008
  • TV: SUN, SUN
Preview | Box Score | Recap

James Shields had some tough stretches last year, but it was a breakout season for the Tampa Bay Rays starter. Those slumps are much more glaring when fighting for first place in the AL East.

Shields, who hasn’t won in more than six weeks, takes the mound for the Rays on Wednesday night in the middle game of their series with the struggling Florida Marlins.

Tampa Bay (45-31) has been baseball’s most surprising contender this season, trailing first-place Boston by one game in the AL East after finishing a major league-worst 66-96 in 2007. Shields (4-5, 3.94 ERA) was one of the Rays’ lone bright spots last year, going 12-8 with a 3.85 ERA in just his second major league season.

But it was far from a dominating year for Shields. He lost four straight starts from June 15-July 1, and allowed 10 runs in 3 1-3 innings of a loss to the New York Yankees on July 22.

A year later, he’s battling through a tough stretch again. Shields is 0-2 with a 7.63 ERA in three starts this month. The right-hander is 0-3 in seven starts since beating the Los Angeles Angels on May 9.

However, Shields pitched very well in two outings against Florida last year, allowing three runs and striking out 17 in 14 innings while going 1-0.

Any Sonnanstine gave the Rays a strong effort in the opener of this series, allowing two runs and six hits in five innings as the Rays beat the Marlins 6-4 on Tuesday night.

The Rays have won three straight road games over Florida and are 8-5 against the National League this season, but they needed four runs in the final two innings to win Tuesday.

“Good teams win ugly games,” said Rays closer Troy Percival, who managed his 18th save in 20 chances despite walking four Marlins in the ninth.

Florida fell to 32-3 when leading after seven, and has lost three of four overall.

The Marlins (40-36) went 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position even though cleanup hitter Josh Willingham made his long-awaited return to the lineup. The left fielder was nursing a sore back, and hadn’t played since April 28.

Willingham went 1-for-5 with an RBI, and is hitting .333 with six home runs and 17 RBIs in 26 games on the season.

“It’s been a long process,” said Willingham, who is expected to start again Wednesday. “Been frustrating, but I’m back in the lineup and hopefully I can do something to help the team win.”

Willingham will be playing behind Florida rookie Ryan Tucker (2-1, 4.50 ERA), who had never pitched above Class A before this season. The 21-year-old right-hander earned a win in his third start, giving up two runs and seven hits in a career-high six innings as Florida beat Seattle 8-3 on Wednesday night.

This will be Tucker’s third straight interleague appearance.

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Starting Pitchers

J. Shields SD vs. R. Tucker LAD
14-8 Record 2-3
3.56 ERA 8.27
160 K 28
40 BB 23
1.15 WHIP 1.86

Scoreboard

Wednesday, Jun 25