The Tampa Bay Rays were perhaps baseball’s biggest surprise in the first half of the season, leading their big-spending AL East rivals for much of the year after 10 years of losing.
They’re hoping a recent return to their old ways doesn’t last long.
The Rays hope to snap a seven-game losing streak as they start the second half at home Friday with the first of 12 remaining games against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Tampa Bay (55-39) remains just 15 wins shy of matching a club record for victories with 68 games remaining, but the Rays had to settle for spending the All-Star break in second place after their recent skid.
The Rays had built a five-game lead atop the East after a 9-2 win over Kansas City on July 6, but their ensuing season-worst seven-game slide— combined with five wins in six games by the Red Sox—dropped the Rays a half-game behind Boston.
“We would have taken the spot we’re in (when the season started),” rookie All-Star Evan Longoria said. “We’re in a great position. We just have to get back to what we were doing.”
The Rays had been winning behind crisp defense, solid starting pitching, a stingy bullpen and timely hitting, but that formula dissolved last week. They have allowed at least five runs in six of the losses, and scored nine total runs during an 0-6 road trip.
Longoria went 3-for-20 with nine strikeouts on the trip, while leadoff hitter Akinori Iwamura was 4-for-21, also striking out nine times. The Rays had just three hits in a 5-2 loss at Cleveland Sunday, completing the Indians’ four-game sweep.
“We played poorly here,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who planned to have a team meeting Thursday. “We’re not swinging the bats. We pitched less. Defensively, everything was just out of our reach.”
James Shields (7-6, 3.83 ERA) was among the pitchers who struggled, allowing five runs and 10 hits in a 5-0 loss Friday. Shields had won his previous three starts, allowing five runs and 13 hits in 20 1-3 innings over that span.
Shields has also pitched well at home this year, going 5-1 with a 2.13 ERA at Tropicana Field. That includes a win over Toronto on April 22, when he gave up four runs—two earned—in seven innings, moving to 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA in four career starts against the Blue Jays.
The Rays, who are 36-14 at home, swept a three-game series against Toronto in St. Petersburg, and also won two of three from the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre in May.
Toronto (47-48) went 5-1 on a homestand to close the first half, however, and will be looking to get back to .500 for the first time since it was 35-35. The Blue Jays—12th in the AL with 399 runs—scored at least four runs in each game of the homestand, the first time they’ve done that six straight times this year.
They’ll turn to A.J. Burnett for the third time in the last six games on Friday. Burnett (10-8, 4.96) beat Baltimore despite allowing seven runs in 5 1-3 innings of a 9-8 win last Wednesday, then pitched on three days’ rest Sunday after Dustin McGowan was placed on the disabled list.
Despite the short rest, he nearly shut out the Yankees, conceding just one run in 8 1-3 innings of a 4-1 win. In his last eight starts, Burnett has allowed seven or more runs four times and two or fewer runs the other four times.
The right-hander is 6-3 with a 3.21 ERA in 14 career starts against the Rays, but has lost his last two outings against them. He gave up five runs in six innings of a 5-4 loss on May 6.