Rays-Orioles Preview

The Associated Press

The Baltimore Orioles perched alone atop the AL East may come as a surprise to many, but not to them.

Now, they'll try to get a rare home win against James Shields before hosting another divisional challenger.

The Orioles look to continue proving they're not a fluke by sweeping the Tampa Bay Rays at Camden Yards for the first time in almost five years on Sunday.

Baltimore (22-12) has been a mostly moribund franchise since winning the East and reaching the AL championship series in 1997, the last time the club finished with a winning record.

For that reason, today's Orioles stand out as of the biggest surprises of 2012, currently tied with Texas for the best record in the AL.

They've opened a two-game lead in the division by winning the first two games of this series, beating Tampa Bay 5-3 on Saturday after opening the three-game set Friday with a 4-3 victory.

"We found people that we can play with and we can win (with)," reliever Pedro Strop said. "A lot of people are asking me, 'Are you surprised at this team?' We're not surprised. We aren't surprised. We've been doing what we were hoping. A lot of people are surprised, but we're not. We are going to keep winning games."

A win Sunday would give Baltimore its first sweep of the Rays (20-14) at Camden Yards since taking three in a row July 24-26, 2007, during the last season in which Tampa Bay was known as the Devil Rays and finished with a losing record. The Orioles also swept Tampa Bay on the road in three games to open 2011.

"I know we won the series now," center fielder Adam Jones said after Saturday's victory, "but we want the sweep."

If the Orioles pull off the sweep, their closest challenger in the East could become the New York Yankees, who currently trail by 2 1/2 games and visit Camden Yards for two games starting Monday night.

First, Baltimore must overcome Shields (5-1, 3.23 ERA). The right-hander is 5-1 with a 3.44 ERA in 10 career starts at Camden Yards.

The Rays lost with Shields on the mound for the first time in seven games this season Tuesday, as he allowed three runs, four hits - two homers - and three walks in six innings of a 5-3 defeat to the Yankees. That snapped a personal five-game winning streak, during which he compiled a 1.98 ERA.

Tampa Bay is trying to avoid a seventh loss in eight games after tying a franchise record with five errors - three in the second inning - Saturday.

"We made way too many errors," said manager Joe Maddon, whose club has made 28 errors on the season - double its total through 34 games in 2011.

Orioles center fielder Adam Jones is hitting .387 with five doubles, a triple and a homer off Shields in 31 career at-bats. He is also 8 for 22 with two doubles, two homers and six RBIs in his last seven games versus Tampa Bay.

Jake Arrieta (2-3, 4.23) is scheduled to get the ball for Baltimore in an effort to win a third consecutive start versus the Rays. The right-hander defeated them twice last season while allowing two runs and six hits over 13 innings.

Arrieta hasn't been nearly that sharp over his last three home starts, going 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA. That includes Tuesday's 10-3 loss to the Rangers, in which surrendered a season highs of six runs, nine hits and three homers in 6 1-3 innings.