The Tampa Bay Rays’ breakthrough season hit a snag on the team’s final road trip before the All-Star break. To hold on to first place in the AL East, the club will likely need a better performance in its first trip of the second half.
The Rays look to snap a six-game road losing streak and protect their division lead on Thursday night when they open a four-game series against the Kansas City Royals.
In its first 10 seasons, the Tampa Bay franchise became synonymous with losing, finishing in last place nine times and never winning more than 70 games in a single year.
The Rays (59-41) finally appear to be contenders in the notoriously challenging AL East, but their strong first half ended on a sour note as Tampa Bay went winless on a six-game road trip heading into the All-Star break.
The Rays snapped that skid by opening the second half with a 4-2 homestand. They beat Oakland 4-3 on Wednesday to clinch their second consecutive series win and match a club record with 20 series victories.
That success is encouraging, but the Rays know it’ll take better performances on the road to make the postseason for the first time in franchise history. Tampa Bay, which is 19-25 on the road and 40-16 at home, leads second-place Boston by half a game, while the surging New York Yankees are 3 1/2 games back.
“It’s big,” Wednesday’s starter James Shields told the Rays’ official Web site. “We need to win series from here on out. Boston and the Yankees don’t look like they’re going away any time soon, so we just have to keep our nose to the field and keep trying to win some games.”
After visiting Kansas City, Tampa Bay travels to play three games in Toronto to cap this trip.
The Rays first hope to take advantage of a Royals team that’s lost eight of 11 at Kauffman Stadium, including four straight. Kansas City (45-57) was held to four hits Wednesday and lost to Detroit 7-1 for the second consecutive game.
Kansas City will try to get its offense back on track against Tampa Bay starter Matt Garza (8-5, 3.68 ERA). The right-hander gave up a season-high seven earned runs to Cleveland in his last road start July 12 to fall to 2-4 with a 5.91 ERA away from home.
Garza looked much better in his last outing Saturday, when he held Toronto to two hits in 7 2-3 scoreless innings of a 6-4 home victory.
“He’s been pounding the strike zone as good as anybody we have right now, with high-end stuff,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “I’d just love to see it continue on the same path. His game demeanor has been spectacular. He’s been staying in the moment.”
Garza is 0-3 with a 3.42 ERA in four career starts against the Royals. He gave up three runs in 6 2-3 innings of Tampa Bay’s 7-4, 10-inning loss to Kansas City on July 7—the Rays’ only defeat in that four-game series.
The Royals will hand the ball to Gil Meche (7-9, 4.55), who’s 1-4 with a 5.40 ERA in nine career starts against the Rays.
Kansas City has won six of its last seven games started by the right-hander, who is 4-1 with a 3.25 ERA in that stretch. Meche limited the Chicago White Sox to one run and two hits in 6 1-3 innings of a 9-1 victory Saturday.
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