Blue Jays-Rays Preview

The Associated Press

Manager Joe Maddon figured bringing a reptile into his team's clubhouse would spark the struggling Tampa Bay Rays in their pursuit to regain the AL East lead.

What he'll do to try and prevent Toronto Blue Jays starter R.A. Dickey from another stellar performance at Tropicana Field remains to be seen.

Tampa Bay looks to beat visiting Toronto for the fourth straight time as the clubs begin a three-game set Friday night.

Maddon, whose club had lost six straight prior to beating Seattle 5-4 on Wednesday, presented his team with a 20-foot python prior to Thursday's series finale, with most players avoiding touching the snake.

"In doing our research, my personal research, 2013 happens to be the year of the snake on the Chinese calendar,'' Maddon said. "We needed a little bit of motivation within the clubhouse. And then furthermore, you find out that it's representative of risk taking and creative thinking. I thought it fit in perfectly with what we're trying to do around here.''

The Rays (68-51) went out and earned a 7-1 victory over the Mariners behind a two-run homer from Evan Longoria and four RBIs from rookie Wil Myers. They pulled within two games of the East lead as Toronto beat first-place Boston 2-1 earlier in the night.

Maddon may need to pull some more unusual tactics with Dickey (9-11, 4.46 ERA) pitching on the road, especially at Tropicana Field.

The last time knuckleballer pitched in St. Petersburg, he tossed a two-hitter and beat the Rays 3-0 on June 26. He's 2-1 with a 2.15 ERA in four career starts at Tampa Bay, including a one-hitter with only one unearned run allowed in the ninth inning of a 9-1 victory while pitching for the New York Mets on June 13, 2012.

Dickey is 5-5 with a 3.08 ERA on the road compared to a 5.79 ERA in Toronto. He has a 3.86 ERA during a 10-start streak overall of pitching at least six innings after allowing three runs in seven frames before the Blue Jays (56-65) fell 6-4 to Oakland on Sunday.

"That's what I always (try) to do," said Dickey, 1-0 with a 1.74 ERA in his last three outings. "Every time out, I try to throw a quality start."

Mark Buehrle did just that in Thursday's victory as Toronto took two of three from the Red Sox. Pinch-hitter Mark DeRosa's sacrifice fly in the seventh broke a 1-all tie.

The Blue Jays have scored two runs or fewer in three of their last four, but they'll look to bust out against Tampa starter Jeremy Hellickson, who is trying to end a dismal stretch.

Hellickson (10-6, 4.93) has lost three straight starts while posting a 9.75 ERA after giving up four runs and seven hits in three innings of Sunday's 8-2 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He's pitched fewer than five innings in each outing during his skid after going 6-0 with a 2.09 ERA over his previous seven starts.

''I'm not pitching well,'' Hellickson said. "The last two weeks have been very frustrating, but I'll be OK.''

The right-hander has been solid against the Blue Jays this season, though, going 2-0 with a 2.52 ERA in four starts. He won the last two, giving up one hit in seven innings of a 4-1 victory June 24 before allowing two runs in five frames of a 4-3 win July 20.

Hellickson is 2-1 with a 1.80 ERA in four career home starts versus Toronto, but Jose Bautista is 8 for 21 (.391) with three homers lifetime against him.

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