Thanks in large part to Carlos Pena, the Tampa Bay Rays were rolling before opening a season-high 10-game road trip with a disheartening loss to the league-worst Seattle Mariners. To bounce back from that defeat, the Rays once again turned to their hot-hitting first baseman.
After riding Pena to another win and their biggest division lead in more than a month, the Rays look to match a franchise record with their 70th win of the season as they continue a four-game series against the Mariners on Saturday night at Safeco Field.
Tampa Bay (69-46) entered this road trip with seven wins in its previous eight games. The most dramatic of those victories came Wednesday, when Pena capped a six-run ninth-inning rally with a walk-off three-run homer in a 10-7 win over Cleveland.
The Rays followed that up by dropping their series opener against the Mariners 2-1 on Thursday, matching their second-half lows in runs and hits (five). Pena, however, helped the club get back on track Friday, going 2-for-3 with a home run and two RBIs in a 5-3 victory.
Pena is 6-for-11 with six walks, two homers, six RBIs and four runs in his last four games. His hot hitting has helped the Rays pull 3 1/2 games ahead of second-place Boston in the AL East - their biggest division lead since they had a four-game cushion over the Red Sox on July 7. With 47 games left in the season, the club is one win shy of its franchise-record total of 70, set in 2004.
Tampa Bay hopes Evan Longoria will be back on the field as it tries to reach that mark again. The rookie third baseman missed Friday’s game after getting hit in the hand with a pitch in the ninth inning of Thursday’s series opener. He said after that game that he didn’t expect to miss any time, but he had pain in his hand when he tried to swing a bat Friday.
Longoria leads the team with 22 home runs and 71 RBIs in 104 games since getting promoted from the minors April 12. Rays manager Joe Maddon said the injury isn’t serious, and it’s “possible” Longoria will be able to return Saturday.
Seattle probably hopes to avoid the 22-year-old phenom for one more day, especially considering its recent offensive woes. After averaging 9.0 runs and batting .400 during a three-game win streak, the Mariners have totaled eight runs and batted .265 while dropping two of three.
“I don’t care if we are 40 games behind, we should play better than this,” Friday’s starter Carlos Silva said, calling out position players for at least the third time this season. “I can talk about the starting rotation - every time we cross the line we want to do our best. … Maybe half of the team don’t have that mentality.”
Seattle will try to rebound against Tampa Bay starter Matt Garza (9-7, 3.70 ERA). After recording his first shutout July 29, the right-hander gave up four runs in five innings of a 5-2 loss to Cleveland on Monday.
Garza is 1-1 with a 9.75 ERA in three career starts against the Mariners. He’s failed to make it out of the third inning of either of his last two starts against them, including a 6-5 loss April 8.
Seattle will counter with Ryan Rowland-Smith (2-1, 3.44), who’s making his third start of the year. The left-hander, who gave up one run in four innings of relief in his last appearance July 19, has no record and a 4.15 ERA in his previous two starts.
Rowland-Smith has pitched five scoreless innings spanning three career relief appearances against the Rays.