Fresh off a huge 9-2 road trip, the Tampa Bay Rays returned home late Sunday night, ahead of a three-game series against James Shields and the Kansas City Royals. Oh, and what a road trip it was! Let’s review the last week and a half of Rays baseball before we move ahead:
- The Tampa Bay Rays are no longer in the AL East cellar. They were able to leap frogged the BoSox, and are now five games behind the third place (and sluggish) Yankees.
- Not only did they go 9-2 on the road trip, they’ve also won 10 of their last 12, and 17 their last 25 (extending back to June 15).
- The Rays averaged 5.09 runs per game over the 11-game road trip, and just under five runs per game since June 15.
Moving forward, enter the Royals.
Anyone reading this is familiar with the overwhelming narrative surrounding the forthcoming series… You know, the whole seven-player trade between the Rays and Royals back in December 2012. That backstory is a tad trite by now. Sure, James Shields will be taking the mound at the Trop for the first time since the trade. Still, at this point, what’s more important? The series itself, or the aforementioned narrative? I’d argue the former.
At 3-3, the Royals have done okay in the front six games of their current nine game road trip — not good or great, just okay. Yet, when you take things back further, one thing becomes glaringly obvious: At 6-9 over a 15-game stretch, Kansas City has been anything but good. The culprit? A general lack of run support. The Royals have averaged 3.6 runs per game, extending back to their ill-fated series against the Seattle Mariners in the middle of June.
James Shields: The Royals have lost each of the last three times with Shields on the mound, and he’s 0-1 with a 6.16 ERA. He threw 113 pitches in five innings Tuesday at Minnesota, relinquishing five runs and nine hits in a 10-2 loss. Furthermore, he is 1-1 with a 6.94 ERA in his past four road starts. Despite everything however, Shields was impressive in his only career start against Tampa Bay, yielding two runs with seven strikeouts in seven innings of an 8-2 home victory April 30, 2013. We all know what to expect out of Juego G. by now: when he’s on, he’s very good, and the Rays will need to disrupt his rhythm early. Key matchups: Ryan Hanigan (2-2, HR, 3 RBI), Desmond Jennings (1-3), Matt Joyce (2-5, HR, 2 RBI, BB), James Loney (2-3, 2B).
Jason Vargas: The Rays lone win against the Royals this season came with Jason Vargas on the mound. However, that win had little to do with Vargas who was very good in his 8 IP/4 H/1 ER start. Vargas has been charged with three or more runs five times since, including three less-than quality starts. Still, the left handed fastball/curve ball/changeup pitcher has historically been very tough against Tampa Bay, boasting a 2.59 ERA in his last three starts against the Rays. Key matchups: Evan Longoria (6-20, 2B, HR, 2 RBI, 2 BB), Jose Molina (3-5, 2B, BB), Ben Zobrist (11-26, 4 2B, HR, 6 RBI, 3 BB).
Yordano Ventura: As I wrote previously, Ventura is a power pitcher whose fastball sits in the 94-97 range. His fastball/curve ball combination is downright deadly, and his change up has really come into its own. Yordano owned Tampa Bay back in April, racking up six strikeouts in his 6 IP, shutout start.
- Welcome back, Helly. The Rays shuffled their roster after Sunday night’s 7-3 win over. LHP Jeff Beliveau and INF Vince Belnome were optioned back to Triple-A Durham. LHP Cesar Ramos will come off the paternity list and Hellickson is set to be activated. Hellickson will take Erik Bedard’s spot in the rotation. Bedard will move to the bullpen.
- Ben Zobrist has 11 hits – including four doubles – in 24 at-bats over his last five contests.
- Per Fox Sports Florida, “It’s unclear if the Royals will have Alex Gordon and Billy Butler back in the lineup after their recent struggles earned them a spot on the bench in the finale. Gordon is headed to the All-Star game in Minneapolis on July 15 with catcher Salvador Perez and closer Greg Holland, but the left fielder is mired in a 3-for-40 slump that’s dropped his average 28 points to .263. Butler is 3 for 26 in his last six games after hitting .391 over the previous 17. The designated hitter is batting .389 with nine RBIs in his past nine meetings with the Rays (41-50), while Gordon has a .339 average in 16. Gordon is also 2 for 4 versus Odorizzi (4-7, 4.18), connecting for a three-run shot in a 7-3 win at Kansas City on April 9.”
- Kansas City has won eight of the last 10 games against the Rays, including two of three in 2014.
- This is pretty great: