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ST. PETERSBURG Eagles Richard Rodgers Jersey , Fla. — Can the Tampa Bay Rays, the hottest team in baseball, finally get back to .500 for the season?
All that is stopping them Thursday are the American League West-leading and defending World Series champion Houston Astros, who come to Tropicana Field for a four-game series.
Tampa Bay (39-40) hasn’t just won five straight — its pitching owns a scoreless streak of 22 innings since Giancarlo Stanton homered off Vidal Nuno in Sunday’s game against the New York Yankees.
The Rays are on their fourth winning streak of at least five games this season and can reach .500 for the third time this season and first instance since they were 26-26 following a 1-0 win at Oakland on May 28.
And as well as the Rays are playing, holding opponents to one run or less eight times in their last 14 games, the Astros (54-28) are still 17-3 in their last 20 games. One of those losses, ending a 12-game win streak last week, was a 2-1 setback against these same Rays.
Tampa Bay began its relievers-as-starters experiment on May 19 and manager Kevin Cash calls them “openers.” Since then, the Rays have the lowest ERA in baseball at 2.87, edging the Yankees (2.96).
“The pitching’s been outstanding, keeping us in every single ballgame,” Cash told reporters. “It’s kind of how we’re built. We’ve got to take advantage of it when we get it. And we’re getting it here of late.”
A big part of Tampa Bay’s effectiveness is reliever-turned-opener Ryne Stanek (1-1, 1.99) who gets the ball first for the Rays on Thursday.
Stanek has been dominant in his unique role in June — 10 games, 13 innings JK Scott Jersey , only four hits and no earned runs. He faced the Astros on back-to-back days last week, oddly enough as a starter and reliever, throwing a combined 2 2/3 innings of hitless, shutout baseball.
The Astros head to Tampa Bay after taking two of three from the Toronto Blue Jays. Houston closed out the series Wednesday afternoon when Alex Bregman hit a two-run homer in the ninth for a 7-6 win.
Bregman went 3-for-5 and was 9-for-14 with three homers against the Blue Jays.
“Bregman’s pretty locked in the last couple of days,” Houston left-hander Dallas Keuchel told reporters. “That’s what he provides for our team, moments in the clutch.”
It will be a homecoming for Astros starter Lance McCullers (8-3, 3.82), who was born in Tampa and graduated from Tampa’s Jesuit High School. Still just 24, McCullers has already set a career high for wins and hasn’t taken a loss in his last five starts. Houston is 11-5 in his starts this season.
McCullers has pitched at Tropicana twice before, once each in 2015 and 2016, and each time, he’s allowed four earned runs in six innings for an 0-2 record and a 6.00 ERA in his career against the Rays.
The relievers-as-starters strategy is just part of Cash’s unconventional approach.
In Tuesday’s 1-0 win against the Nationals, Cash played a pitcher at first base for one out, shifting reliever Jose Alvarado to first to avoid having to make a situational pitching change. Chaz Roe got the out with Alvarado manning first (with a runner to hold no less) Sergei Boikov Jersey , and while Alvarado gave up two hits in his return to the mound, Sergio Romo got the final outs and the Rays outdueled Max Scherzer for a memorable win.
This four-game series wraps up a daunting 16-game run for the Rays in which they had seven games each against the Astros and Yankees (and two against the Nationals). And yet, somehow, they’re 7-5 in those games with four remaining.
From there, the schedule eases up, as Tampa Bay goes on the road to face the Miami Marlins and the New York Mets. The Astros have two games at the Texas Rangers, but then close the first half of the season with 11 straight games at home before the All-Star break.
Adam Jones took a big swing, and the result was a popup. He slammed his bat to the ground in disgust and dutifully jogged to first base.
Somehow, that seemingly routine out became the catalyst for a six-run inning that carried the Baltimore Orioles past the Los Angeles Angels 8-2 on Sunday.
Manny Machado and Mark Trumbo hit consecutive homers after the Angels lost the popup in the sun, and the Orioles got a strong pitching performance from Kevin Gausman in snapping a seven-game losing streak.
Los Angeles was up 1-0 when Jones led off the fourth against Deck McGuire (0-1) by hitting a ball high in the air. Second baseman Ian Kinsler couldn’t catch sight of it, and the ball landed on the dirt between second and first for a gift single.
”Sounds funny to say, but those are the types of things that have been happening to us,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. ”Kinsler’s as good a second baseman as there is.”
Machado followed with his 21st home run , Trumbo connected Brian Gibbons Jersey , and Steve Wilkerson singled in a run before Tim Beckham capped the surge with a two-run single.
The home runs were lamentable, but the popup was especially galling to the Angels.
”Obviously it’s unexpected. It happens,” manager Mike Scioscia said. ”He thought he had a bead on it and all of a sudden it disappeared in the sun.”
Jones got credit for a hit, but it sure didn’t feel that way.
”Sure, it’s just like an error,” Scioscia said. ”I don’t think (McGuire) was affected by it, but obviously it adds fuel to the fire and starts a rally for them.”
Trumbo homered again in the fifth and Trey Mancini also connected to help Baltimore secure its only victory during a seven-game homestand that began with four straight losses to Seattle.
Gausman (4-6) weathered temperatures in the upper 90s to go eight innings, allowing two runs and six hits to end a run of eight straight winless starts.
The Orioles improved to 1-15 against the AL West and won at home for only the second time in 19 games since May 13.
Baltimore still owns the worst record in the majors, but there were plenty of smiles to go around on this day.
”We’re undefeated in July,” Showalter said with a grin. ”Sometimes, you have to laugh to keep from crying, right? We have good people. It just hasn’t happened for us, but we have half the season left. That’s the approach we’re taking.”
Kole Calhoun homered and Albert Pujols drove in a run for the Angels, who were seeking the first season sweep of Baltimore in franchise history. They settled for going 5-1 Cory Schneider Jersey , their fewest losses against the Orioles in one year.
THIS AND THAT
LA reliever Eduardo Parades has allowed five HRs in 16 1/3 innings. … Gausman did not allow a walk for the fifth time this season. … Wilkerson recorded his first career double, but Showalter said the rookie left with an apparent oblique injury. … Angels star Mike Trout did not reach base for only the 12th time in 85 games this year.
Angels: DH/RHP Shohei Ohtani (elbow) was scheduled to take live batting practice in California. Asked if the two-way star could be activated for this week’s series against Seattle, Scioscia replied, ”Let’s get by today, see how he does.” … RHP Garrett Richards (hamstring) could be ready to come off the DL on Wednesday to start against Seattle.
Orioles: OF Colby Rasmus was held out with an illness. … RHP Darren O’Day said he opted for season-ending surgery on his hamstring because there was no guarantee he would be healthy by September. ”I need to functionally get it fixed so it just doesn’t happen again,” he said. … RHP Chris Tillman (back) will need at least one more rehabilitative start after allowing five runs and eight hits in 3 2/3 innings for Triple-A Norfolk on Saturday night.
Angels: After taking Monday off, LA faces Seattle on the road to launch a three-game series. Andrew Heaney (4-5, 3.95 ERA) is 0-3 with a 6.14 ERA in seven road starts.
Orioles: Following a day off Monday, Baltimore sends Alex Cobb (2-9, 6.75) to the mound in the opener of a two-game interleague series in Philadelphia.