The Tampa Bay Rays know it’s going to be a challenge to repeat as AL champions, especially playing in the stacked East division.
Continuing their strong play at Tropicana Field, however, would likely go a long way toward helping their cause.
The Rays look to win their ninth straight at home Friday night when they open a three-game series against the Oakland Athletics.
Tampa Bay (47-39) is one of only four teams in the AL to reach 47 wins, but the Rays are in third place in the East behind Boston and the New York Yankees.
They’re still very much alive in the race, however, thanks in large part to their recent success at home. Tampa Bay has batted .301, posted a 2.92 ERA and outscored opponents 48-24 during an eight-game home winning streak, its longest since a franchise-record 11-game run from April 22-May 13 last season.
The Rays kept their streak alive with a 3-2 win over Toronto on Thursday. Rookie left-hander David Price(notes) outpitched five-time All-Star Roy Halladay(notes) and Carlos Pena(notes) broke a 1-all tie with a two-run double in the fifth inning to help Tampa Bay complete the sweep after it lost its previous four games on the road.
“It’s good to come home and look and play like ourselves again,” manager Joe Maddon said.
The Rays, who are 29-13 at Tropicana Field, have gone 19-3 there since they last lost consecutive home games. Both those defeats came courtesy of the Athletics, who took two of four in Tampa from May 18-21.
Oakland (35-48) has won four of seven against Tampa Bay in 2009, but it’s dropped 10 of its last 14 to fall further back in the AL West.
The A’s outhit the Red Sox 13-7 on Wednesday night, but they went 3 for 15 with runners in scoring position in the 5-4 defeat.
The Athletics will have an easier time bouncing back if Vin Mazzaro(notes) (2-4, 3.59 ERA) can reclaim his early season form. The rookie right-hander started his major league career with 13 2-3 scoreless innings while winning his first two starts. Since then, he’s gone 0-4 with a 5.28 ERA in five outings—all Oakland losses.
Mazzaro gave up season highs of five runs and 10 hits in six innings of a 5-2 loss at Cleveland on Saturday. He said he’s learned a lot during his recent struggles.
“It’s all about attacking the strike zone,” Mazzaro said. “You have to fill the zone early, get ahead, keep the ball down and try to get ground balls.”
Jeff Niemann(notes) (7-4, 4.14) will start for Tampa Bay. The right-hander held Toronto to one run and four hits in 7 1-3 innings to win his last start June 29 before giving up three runs in three innings of relief in the Rays’ 12-4 loss at Texas on Saturday.
In his only start against Oakland, Niemann allowed four runs in eight innings of a 13-4 victory May 18.