The Tampa Bay Rays have blossomed into an AL power, and they hold a comfortable lead in the wild card race while cruising toward a third consecutive winning season.
Fans in Cleveland, however, have yet to witness the franchise’s resurgence firsthand.
The Rays hope to finally snap an inexplicable string of 17 consecutive losses at Progressive Field as they open a three-game series with the last-place Indians on Friday night.
Tampa Bay’s 31-17 road record is the best in the majors, but it remains to be seen if that success will be enough for the Rays (57-37) to pick up their first win in Cleveland in nearly five years.
The Indians haven’t lost to Tampa Bay at home since a 1-0 defeat on Sept. 28, 2005. The streak is the longest active skid for any MLB team in a visiting city.
The Rays, who have won five of six against Cleveland at home this year, will be visiting for the first time since a four-game sweep from May 25-28, 2009.
“Maybe next time we come in, we’ll have some candles and holy water,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said after that series. “I have no good explanation for this.”
Jeff Niemann(notes) (8-2, 2.92 ERA) takes the ball again after losing the Rays’ most recent game in Cleveland. He allowed one run in three innings before a lengthy rain delay forced him from Tampa Bay’s 2-1 defeat.
“It has to be one of those things where the numbers are way skewed out from where they should be,” Niemann told MLB.com. “Hopefully, it’s our time to even some things out.”
The Rays have won both of Niemann’s home starts against the Indians this year, but the right-hander still doesn’t have a winning decision against Cleveland. He left Tampa Bay’s 6-5, 10-inning win over the Indians on July 11 after five innings with back stiffness, but bounced back to beat the Yankees on Saturday.
The right-hander, who has a chance to reach 10 wins for the first time since going 19-8 in 2007, has been sharp in two starts against the Rays this year, going 1-0 with a 2.70 ERA.
The Indians (40-55) had a season-high six-game winning streak coming out of the All-Star break, but they missed out on a three-game sweep of Minnesota with Wednesday’s 6-0 loss.
“We’re playing good baseball,” Cleveland manager Manny Acta said. “We’re pitching well, catching the ball, getting timely hitting. As cliche as it may sound, that’s how you win ballgames.”
Cleveland will have Shin-Soo Choo(notes) back in the lineup Friday. The outfielder, who leads the Indians with a .286 batting average, 13 homers and 12 stolen bases, hasn’t played since July 2 due to a sprained right thumb.
The Rays also hope to have Carl Crawford(notes) back after the All-Star outfielder was hit in the groin with a pickoff attempt Tuesday. Crawford is second in the majors with 33 stolen bases and leads Tampa Bay with a .317 average.
The Rays won without Crawford on Wednesday, beating Baltimore 5-4.