The Rays look to continue their spate of winning against the Astros, starting Thursday. (Photo Credit: X-Rays Spex)

The Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros are set to start a four-game series on Thursday night, when they collide at Tropicana Field. The Rays have won five in a row — all at the expense of the Yankees and Nationals — and seven of their last nine. Houston is 4-1 in its last five contests after recently taking two of three from the Jays.

(Stats Credit: ESPN)

Tampa Bay started an incredibly tough stretch of play back on May 8, playing 51 games in 54 days. Over that span the Rays faced eight teams with a +.500 record, and went 24-27 overall, with four winning streaks of three or more games, and four losing streaks of three or more games. That seesaw certainly isn’t eye popping to say the least. However, they made hay against the Angels and Athletics, and most recently the Yankees and Nationals.

Pitching has been key to the Rays of late. Their five-game winning streak includes three shutouts and a 22-inning scoreless streak, while they have pitched to a combined 2.87 ERA since May 19 (best in the majors) when they launched their “game opener” strategy, with a .207 opponents batting average and a 1.11 WHIP (second best in the majors).

The pitching’s been outstanding, keeping us in every single ball game, manager Kevin Cash said. 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.

(Stats Credit: FanGraphs)

Even thought they don’t have much to show for their success at the plate over the last 14-days, the Rays have performed well offensively since they last faced the Astros — averaging four runs per game, and slashing a combined .269 BA/.354 OBP/.450 SLG/.804 OPS/.349 wOBA/.325 BABIP line over the last week, with 25 runs (63% of all the runs they’ve scored over the last two weeks), a .181 ISO, and a 5.7 Weighted Runs Above Average (wRAA).

True, Tampa Bay closed out its most recent road trip by losing two of three in Houston, yet the team is perfect on its current nine-game home-stand. And in all fairness, the Rays could have won two of three against the Astros, as the loss in the first game of that particular series came by a run.

To be sure, it would be a fool’s errand to seek a four-game sweep of the Astros. The question then should be how will Tampa Bay bounce back from loss? Will the Rays drop three or more consecutive games, as they have throughout the season, or will they recover from a loss to win the very next game? A series split, in the least, will give them a far better chance to again climb over the .500 mark against their next four, sub .500, competitors: the Marlins, Mets, Tigers, and Twins.

Pitching Probables

Over the next four days Kevin Cash will lean on Ryne Stanek (1-1, 1.99 ERA) — who will likely be followed by Ryan Yarbrough (7-3, 3.96 ERA), Wilmer Font (1-1, 1.64 ERA), Matt Andriese (1-3, 4.02 ERA), and Blake Snell (10-4, 2.31 ERA). AJ Hinch will counter with Lance McCullers Jr. (8-3, 3.82 ERA), Gerrit Cole (9-1, 2.56 ERA), Justin Verlander (9-3, 1.82 ERA), and Charlie Morton (10-1, 2.54 ERA).

(Stats Credit: FanGraphs)

Ryne Stanek is one of the prime reasons for the team’s pitching success, having not allowed a run in 10 consecutive appearances, including five lead-off outings. Stanek has allowed just four hits during this stretch, while striking out 14 and walking five over 13 innings. Ryan Yarbrough threw 3-1/3 shutout innings against the Yankees last Friday, walking three but fanning four.

Lance McCullers Jr. picked up his fifth consecutive quality start, but settled for his second straight no-decision after allowing three runs on four hits over six innings of work in his last turn. McCullers struck out nine. The Tampa product owns a 5-2 record in nine starts away from Minute Maid Park, yet with a 4.83 road ERA. This season he has relied primarily on a hard 87 mph 12-6 curveball and a 95 mph sinker with some armside run, while also mixing in a whiffy 88 mph changeup with obvious armside fade. The right-hander is 0-2 with an alarming 6.00 ERA in losing both of his careers starts at Tropicana Field.

Wilmer Font shut down one of baseball’s most potent offenses on Saturday, stymying a silent Yankees team.

Font threw 5-2/3 solid innings — his longest outing in the Majors — and allowed just three hits, walking just one and striking out four. It was the 28-year-old’s first big league victory (in his 26th appearance and fourth start). He has progressively increased the length of his appearances, from 2-1/3 innings to 3-1/3 to 4-2/3 and now 5-2/3.

It’s exciting, and I’m very happy, said Font, who was acquired by the Rays on May 25 and is playing with his third organization (Dodgers, Athletics) this season. I was trying to attack from the start. The first pitch was very important. After that, work the corners. I felt very, very good today.

Since joining the Rays, he is 1-1 with a 1.63 ERA in eight appearances (four starts). While there is still a lot of work for him to do, as Marc Topkin (Tampa Bay Times) writes, Font may turn out to be a steal for the Rays off the discard pile given his physical tools, maturity and hunger at age 28 to finally succeed.

Gerrit Cole fanned eight over five one-run innings on Sunday against Kansas City. He allowed two hits and three walks along the way. Cole limited baserunners, with the only run against him coming on a Lucas Duda solo shot in the fourth. The Royals fouled off 27 pitches to help push Cole’s pitch count, resulting in his removal after collecting just 15 outs. Despite the short outing, Cole bounced back from allowing four earned runs in each of his last two starts, including four runs on three hits and five walks against Tampa Bay on June 18. Cole is now 0-0 with a 5.14 ERA against the Rays. Key Matchups: CJ Cron (1-4, 2B, RBI), Carlos Gomez (6-14, 3B, 2 BB), Wilson Ramos (3-12, 2 HR, 4 RBI, BB), Joey Wendle (1-3, 2 RBI)

Matt Andriese gave up three runs on three hits and two walks while striking out one in the Rays’ bullpen day on Sunday. His ERA jumped from 3.68 to 4.02 after the outing. Andriese followed 16 consecutive appearances in which he allowed two earned runs or fewer, with two straight starts in which he gave up three runs in each — including a 2-2/3 inning, three run start against the Astros on June 18.

Justin Verlander allowed four runs on seven hits and two walks with six punch outs over 6-2/3 innings of a loss against the Blue Jays on Monday. Home runs have been an issue for Verlander lately, as he has allowed six homers in his past four starts after giving up just five over his first 13 outings. The result was the first time all season that Verlander allowed more than three runs, pushing his ERA all the way up to 1.82. The right-hander gave up a second inning solo shot to CJ Cron in a 1-2 loss to the Rays on June 19, but otherwise struck out 10. Verlander is 5-2 with a 2.53 ERA in eight career starts at Tropicana Field. Key Matchups: Matt Duffy (1-3), Wilson Ramos (1-3), Joey Wendle (2-3, 2B)

Blake Snell slammed the door on the Nationals over the balance of his seven inning, one hit start after he allowed a pair of first inning free passes.

I got pissed; I was annoyed, said Snell on the subject of walking the first two batters.

The left-hander carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning until Anthony Rendon led off the frame with a double off the left field wall. Snell walked two more batters in the frame, although he was able to escape with the shutout intact. Snell fanned 10 and lowered his home ERA from 0.96 to 0.70, extending his club record by allowing just one earned run or fewer in a 10th straight home start.

Marc Topkin (Tampa Bay Times) also dished some noteworthiness relating to Snell’s phenomenal outing:

Retired 18 straight, tying the third-longest streak of consecutive batters retired in team history, behind Matt Garza (22) on July 26, 2010, vs.
Detroit and Chris Archer (19) on July 29, 2015 vs. Detroit.

Made the 11th scoreless start of his career and matched the longest scoreless start of his career.

Reached double-digit strikeouts for the fourth time in his career, third this season. No other Rays pitcher has done so.

Became the seventh Ray to reach double-digit wins
before the All-Star break, first since Matt Moore (13) in 2013.

Allowed two runs or fewer for an AL-most 14th time this season, matching Washington’s Max Scherzer for most in the majors. And allowed one run or fewer for the 10 time, matching most in the majors.

Charlie Morton struck out 13 over seven scoreless frames on Tuesday against the Blue Jays. Morton allowed four hits and two walks en route to a win. The right-hander relinquished zero extra-base hits and threw 67 of 98 pitches for strikes (68% strike rate) in his dominant outing — the fifth time this season that Morton has recorded double-digit strikeouts. Morton now sports a 3.13 K/BB over 95-2/3 innings and a .195 batting average against, making him one of only seven pitchers in the big leagues to hold opponents under a .200 average. In his last start against Tampa Bay, Morton allowed just one run on two hits and four walks, although he is 0-2 with a 5.25 ERA in two career starts at the Trop. Key Matchups: Jake Bauers (1-1, 2B, 2 BB), Matt Duffy (1-3), Carlos Gomez (6-18, HR, 5 RBI, BB), Wilson Ramos (5-14, RBI, 3 BB)

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