The Tampa Bay Rays’ starting pitching has been a big reason for their surprising rise to the top of the AL East. A few disappointing outings by the rotation, though, has cut their lead in the division to just 2 1/2 games.
The Rays try to get back on track as they continue a three-game series against the streaking Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday.
Tampa Bay (85-54) lost for the third time in four games on Friday, falling 6-4 to Toronto (74-66). The Rays led 2-0 after the first, but the Blue Jays responded with three runs in the second en route to their season-high sixth straight win.
“Coming out of the gates with those two runs, they’re precious,” Tampa Bay starter Andy Sonnanstine. “I’m kind of disappointed that I didn’t go back out there and put another zero up.”
The loss cut the Rays’ lead in the AL East to 2 1/2 games over the wild card-leading Boston Red Sox, who beat Texas 8-1. Tampa Bay’s lead in the division hasn’t been fewer than 2 1/2 games since holding a two-game advantage July 29.
Sonnanstine, who allowed four runs over six innings, continued the recent inconsistency of the Rays’ rotation, which has one of the AL’s lowest ERAs (3.89). In the last six games, however, Tampa Bay’s starters are 2-3 with a 5.87 ERA, and 1-3 with a 6.20 ERA in the last four.
The Rays opened a nine-game road trip Friday, which also includes series against division rivals Boston and the New York Yankees. They are 32-33 on the road, including 3-4 against the Blue Jays.
Toronto is averaging 6.7 runs over its winning streak, currently 11 1/2 games behind the Rays in the division and nine games back in the wild card. Alex Rios hit two homers Friday, and is hitting .429 (12-for-28) with six extra-base hits (three homers, two doubles and a triple) during the winning streak.
Rios, however, has struggled against Rays starter James Shields (12-8, 3.66 ERA), going 4-for-18 with six strikeouts.
Shields is trying to win his career-high 13th game. He pitched seven innings on Sunday against Baltimore, allowing one run and six hits in a 10-4 win, his fifth victory in his last seven decisions. The right-hander, who also won 12 games in 2007, has a 3.32 ERA in his last nine starts.
Shields is 4-2 with a 3.02 ERA in seven starts against the Blue Jays. He is 2-2 with a 3.21 ERA in four starts this season, losing the last two.
Shaun Marcum (8-6, 3.60) will make his first start since being recalled from Triple-A Syracuse when he counters for Toronto.
After winning three straight starts in early August, Marcum lost Aug. 22 against Boston, allowing five runs and six hits over 3 2-3 innings of an 8-4 loss. He was sent to the minors the next day to work on his control issues.
The right-hander told the Blue Jays’ official Web site on Tuesday he was surprised when the news came that he was being sent to Triple-A.
“I was a little disappointed,” he said. “It kind of humbles you a little bit. … I almost wanted to go home, but … I care about this team and these guys too much to leave them like that.”
Marcum is 2-0 with a 1.06 ERA in two starts and one relief appearance against the Rays. On May 7, he came within one out of a complete game in a 6-2 victory, giving up two runs and four hits.