In what has been an extraordinary season for a once-fruitless franchise, the Rays look to secure a playoff spot for the first time and they’ll have their ace on the mound when they face the Minnesota Twins on Saturday.
With an 11-1 win over the Twins (83-71) on Friday night, Tampa Bay (91-61) moved within one win of wrapping up at least a wild card spot.
“It’s very exciting to be in this position, and to move on to the postseason would be great,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “But that’s just one of the goals. It’s also to win the division and to get the best record in the league.
“We want home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. I don’t want anyone to be satisfied with where we’re at.”
The AL East-leading Rays, who remained 1 1/2 games ahead of second-place Boston, have never had a winning percentage above .435 in their 11-season history. That was in 2004, when Kazmir (11-7, 3.50 ERA) made his Tampa Bay debut after being acquired in a trade with the New York Mets. He went 2-3 that season, but has gone 44-33 with a 3.51 ERA since.
Kazmir has made two All-Star appearances—an impressive feat considering the Rays had never lost less than 91 games.
While this is the most important start of Kazmir’s career, the left-hander is coming off his worst outing of the season, giving up nine runs and six hits in three innings of a 13-5 loss to Boston on Monday. He surrendered a career-high four home runs.
Kazmir went 3-0 with a 2.15 ERA in his previous five starts. He is 1-3 with a 3.86 ERA in four starts against the Twins, getting an average of 2.2 runs to work with.
Tampa Bay’s lineup, though, has been clicking over its last three games, batting .301 while averaging 9.7 runs. Carlos Pena homered and drove in four runs Friday. Pena’s 31st homer was his 17th since the All-Star break.
The Rays may also have center fielder B.J. Upton back Saturday. Upton, out since Sept. 8 with a strained left quadriceps, ran the bases before the game and may be ready to return.
If their starters continue to struggle, the Twins will have a tough time catching the White Sox. Minnesota has lost five of six, with only one starting pitcher going more than 4 2-3 innings during that span.
Slowey, 5-2 with a 2.54 ERA in his last eight starts, will try to give Minnesota a boost. The right-hander, however, lost his last outing, giving up three runs and seven hits in six innings as Minnesota lost 3-1 to Cleveland on Monday night.
This will be Slowey’s first appearance against Tampa Bay.