The Tampa Bay Rays finished off an otherwise disappointing home stand by taking two of three big games from the Orioles. (Photo Credit: Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Times)

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the gauntlet. The Tampa Bay Rays are about to embark on a stretch of 17 consecutive games without an off-day, with the next 11 coming against playoff contenders. First stop the Bronx, where the Rays will take on the Yankees in a four-game series that will likely have postseason implications.

Tampa Bay finished off an otherwise disappointing 2-4 home stand by taking two of three big games from the Orioles. New York has won three in a row, including six of its past eight. The two are separated by a game in the standings as both chase the first-place Red Sox in the AL East, and both contend for a Wildcard spot.

On the subject of this gauntlet of a stretch, Adam Sanford (DRaysBay) said it best:

The next three weeks will be critical in deciding the Rays playoff hopes, as a prolonged slump could lead them being dismissed early, while a sudden winning streak could see them surge to the top of the standings.

… And it all starts Friday night.

(Stats: ESPN)

Evan Longoria told Marc Topkin (Tampa Bay Times) that he is excited for the challenge ahead:

It’s going to be fun. Going on the road and playing teams in first place or in playoff contention is fun. I feel like this team is really built for that. We play well on the road, and it seems like when we go and play tough teams, we’re able to rise to the occasion.

This will be pretty indicative of what type of team we are and definitely get a feel for how we can play under pressure.

While it may be fun — and the Rays do tend to play better when they are faced with a challenge — the fact of the matter is that they have not performed well in the Bronx this season, going 0-3 at New Yankee Stadium, and 4-5 against the Bronx Bummers overall. Then again, the Rays did take 2-of-3 from the Yankees, the last time they faced them in May.

While it was encouraging for Tampa Bay to average five runs per game over the last two games, the team desperately needs the bats of Corey Dickerson and Logan Morrison to come back to life.

For Dickerson, that means limiting the amount he swings outside of the zone, thus forcing pitchers like CC Sabathia (who he will face Friday) back over the plate. Consider that Dickerson made contact with 74% of pitches outside of the zone to start the season. Since slipping into this extended funk though, that percentage has dropped to 71.9% overall. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate has ballooned from 18.8% at the start of May, to 23.6% currently. Dickerson has taken a few walks of late, a sign that he’s starting to see the ball a little better. But, he hasn’t had a hit in his last 17 plate appearances (extending back to 7/21, when he went 3-for-4 against Oakland). Without the productive bat of Colby Rasmus to lean upon, LoMo and Dickerson have become that much more important in the Rays lineup … yet they haven’t been there of late. Hopefully that short porch in right field is enticing enough for the two of them to hammer a few bombs over the span of this series.

(Stats: FanGraphs)

Kevin Cash will depend upon Chris Archer (7-6, 3.77 ERA, 3.10 FIP), a pitcher to be determined before Friday’s ball game, Blake Snell (0-6, 4.86 ERA, 5.08 FIP), and Jacob Faria (5-1, 2.67 ERA, 3.65 FIP) over the next four days. Joe Girardi will counter with CC Sabathia (9-3, 3.44 ERA, 4.19 FIP), Masahiro Tanaka (7-9, 5.37 ERA, 4.92 FIP), Caleb Smith (0-0, 9.82 ERA, 2.88 FIP), and Jordan Montgomery (7-2, 3.92 ERA, 4.07 FIP).

(Stats: FanGraphs)

Pitching Matchups

Archer was electric against the Orioles on Monday, but took his fourth loss after he uncorked two wild pitches which allowed the go ahead run to score all the way from second. Archer, however, has made five consecutive quality starts and has gone at least six innings in 12 straight starts. New York typically has trouble against Archer, who has posted a 2.73 ERA against the Yankees and held them to a .202 batting average.

Sabathia, the swarthy left-hander, has won two of his three starts since coming off the 10-day DL at the beginning of July. His most recent outing came against Seattle, in which he threw five innings of one run ball, while allowing four hits. He struck out five. The southpaw has fared well against Tampa Bay of late. The Yankees are in the midst of a seven-game winning streak against Rays in his starts, and in the past two-plus years, Sabathia is 4-0 with a 3.05 ERA against Tampa Bay. Key Matchups: Tim Beckham (3-11, 2B, RBI, BB), Peter Bourjos (4-15, BB), Evan Longoria (30-74, 9 2B, 7 HR, 16 RBI, 15 BB), Logan Morrison (2-3), Trevor Plouffe (6-23, HR, RBI, 2 BB), Steven Souza Jr. (6-16, HR, RBI, BB)

TBA

Tanaka has pitched better since a poor string of starts in May, yet he lost his last two starts against the Brewers and the Red Sox. In his most recent outing, he allowed four runs over six innings against Seattle, yet earned a win. Tanaka has not been very good against the Rays this season, lasting just 5-2/3 innings in two starts, and allowing 13 runs on 17 hits — including Opening Day, when he allowed seven earned runs in 2-2/3 innings. Key Matchups: Corey Dickerson (8-18, 2 2B, 3 HR, 6 RBI, BB), Adeiny Hechavarria (2-3, RBI), Trevor Plouffe (3-12, 2B), Wilson Ramos (1-3), Mallex Smith (1-2), Jesus Sucre (1-2, 2B, RBI) 

Snell pitched well against the Orioles on Monday, throwing two batters into the eighth inning and — much to the surprise of some, and the chagrin of others — rarely found himself in trouble with any of Baltimore’s batters. The southpaw worked over the outside of the plate against righties with fastballs and changeups, although he wasn’t afraid to come inside from time to time. Snell stayed in control of his stuff for all seven-plus innings of his start — and yes, that includes the two hits he allowed in the top of the eighth (a single to left by Rubén Tejada, and a bunt single by Joey Rickard that rolled back into play). The Yankees have chased Snell early in his starts, but without much damage. He has a 2.38 ERA against New York in five starts but has lasted only 22-2/3 innings.

Smith couldn’t make it through four innings in his first big league start against Seattle on Sunday, allowing four runs on five hits over 3-2/3 innings. The southpaw has primarily relied upon a 93 mph four-seam fastball with slight arm-side run and some added backspin, a whiffy 81 mph slider, and a firm 84 mph changeup.

Faria has pitched well since being promoted from Triple-A Durham, posting quality starts in eight of nine starts. He bounced back with an impressive 7-1/3 inning start — his longest outing since he went eight for Montgomery at the end of 2015. There was a legitimate fear of familiarity with Faria facing the Orioles for the third time this season, yet the right-hander scattered seven hits, walked two and struck out five; holding the birds to 1-for-6 wRISP. His pitch mix kept the Orioles off balance, and though Baltimore made some noise with loud, hard contact, defensive luck — with those balls finding gloves not gaps — kept Faria in the black.

Montgomery carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning in his most recent start against the Reds. He, however, was pulled from the game after tossing just 85 pitches, after he allowed one run on two hits, while fanning six. Montgomery made his big league debut against the Rays in April and allowed three runs on five hits (including a homer) over 4-2/3 innings. Key Matchups: Tim Beckham (1-2), Peter Bourjos (1-2), Steven Souza Jr. (1-3, 2B)

Noteworthiness

— Daniel Robertson and Kevin Kiermaier will start their rehab assignments with the Charlotte Stone Crabs on Thursday. Kiermaier is on track to return in early to mid August.

— Diego Moreno was activated from the DL yesterday, then optioned to Triple-A Durham. However, since the Rays needed to open a spot on the 40-man roster for the newly acquired Dan Jennings, Moreno has been designated for assignment.

— Austin Pruitt has been added to the taxi squad and will start Friday for the Rays in New York.

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