After sweeping their second home series against the defending World Series champions, the last thing the Tampa Bay Rays need is a letdown.
Owners of the best record in the majors, the Rays look to avoid that from happening when they open a four-game set with the Kansas City Royals on Friday afternoon.
After enjoying a day off Thursday, Tampa Bay (52-32) enters its first meeting of 2008 with Kansas City looking for a fifth consecutive victory. The Rays, who have also won eight of nine and 14 of their last 18, rallied for a 7-6 victory over Boston on Wednesday.
The Rays hold a three-game lead over the Red Sox in the AL East and are the first team other than New York or Boston to lead the division this late in a season since 2000, when Toronto led on July 6 before finishing third.
“It’s a really good feeling,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon, whose club is the second in history to have the best record in the majors this deep into a season after finishing with the worst mark the previous year. “We’ve worked to get to this point, to earn that right to have that feeling, so now we have to maintain it.”
On Wednesday, Evan Longoria had three hits and drove in three runs for Tampa Bay, which benefited from a six-run seventh inning to help improve to an AL-best 33-13 at home.
“Our guys are playing with a very high level of ability and emotion,” Maddon said. “When you get to that level, when you really start trusting and believing … then you can do things like we did (Wednesday).”
The reigning AL player of the week, Longoria is batting .367 (22-for-60) with five homers and 18 RBIs in his last 15 games. Tampa Bay, though, will be without shortstop Jason Bartlett, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list after spraining his right knee Wednesday.
Edwin Jackson (4-6, 4.33 ERA) takes the ball for the Rays on Friday after allowing three runs and six hits in 6 2-3 innings of a 4-3, 13-inning loss at Pittsburgh on Saturday.
The right-hander allowed six runs in 3 1-3 innings of a 9-4 loss to Kansas City on June 2, 2007 in his only start against the Royals.
Though Tampa Bay went 3-4 versus Kansas City in 2007, the Rays have won nine of their last 11 at home against the Royals and their 24-18 all-time mark against them at Tropicana Field is their best versus any AL opponent.
Kansas City (39-47) used a seven-run sixth inning to help avoid a third straight loss by winning 10-7 at Baltimore on Thursday to split the four-game set. The Royals are 2-4 since winning six in a row.
“Belief is within everybody,” said Royals second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, who went 4-for-5. “So you go out there and try to do something and get a good pitch. We did that.”
Jose Guillen also drove in three runs and David DeJesus matched a career high by extending his hitting streak to 15 games. DeJesus is batting .410 (25-for-61) with five doubles, four homers and 16 RBIs during his streak.
Brian Bannister (7-7, 4.88) looks to avoid a second straight loss when he pitches Friday for Kansas City. He gave up seven runs and nine hits in 4 2-3 innings of a 9-6 defeat to St. Louis on Sunday.
The right-hander allowed a run and two hits in eight innings to win 4-1 at Tampa Bay on June 1, 2007 in his only previous start versus the Rays.