The Tampa Bay Rays suddenly find themselves in the thick of the playoff race after sweeping the AL wild-card leaders. Continuing their quest for a postseason berth, though, could prove difficult given Jeff Niemann's recent ugly stretch. Niemann takes the mound hoping to avoid losing a career worst-tying third consecutive start Monday night when the Rays begin a crucial 11-game road trip against the Baltimore Orioles.
Tampa Bay (81-64) moved a season-high 17 games over .500 and within 3 1/2 of wild card-leading Boston after completing a three-game sweep of the Red Sox with Sunday's 9-1 victory. B.J. Upton had a grand slam among a season-best four hits and James Shields came within two outs of his 12th complete game of the year. The Rays, winners in seven of eight, sat 10 games behind the New York Yankees in the wild-card standings on Aug. 7.
Niemann, who went 6-0 with a 1.71 ERA from July 2-Aug. 16, has since gone 1-3 with a 7.33 ERA over his last four starts. He was at his worst during Tuesday's 8-0 loss to Texas, yielding a season-high seven runs and nine hits in 4 2-3 innings. Getting back on the road could help Niemann (9-7, 4.07 ERA) regroup. He is 6-2 with a 3.36 ERA in 10 starts away from home as opposed to 3-5 with a 4.74 mark at home. The right-hander, who hasn't faced Baltimore this season, is 1-2 with a 7.06 ERA over four career starts at Camden Yards. Nick Markakis is 8 for 23 with a homer against him while Matt Wieters is 5 for 13.
Since going 22 for 64 (.344) with seven homers and 18 RBIs from Aug. 15-Sept. 6, Wieters finds himself in the midst of a 0-for-15 slump after going hitless in five at-bats during Sunday's 6-5 loss at Toronto. The Orioles (58-87) have won each of Zach Britton's four last starts, during which the rookie left-hander has gone 3-0 with a 2.74 ERA. Britton (9-9, 4.33) has impressed in three outings in this matchup, going 2-1 with a 3.12 ERA while holding the Rays to a .186 average.
We get a fairly good price in this spot given Tampa Bay's ability to hit better away from Tropicana Field. Still the Rays need to execute when it comes to opportunities with RISp, as evident by their .244 batting average. They are 6th though in the AL with 148 HR and despire a slow start from Eva Longoria due to inefficiency and injuries, he leads Tampa with 25 HR and 83 RBI. BJ Upton (.232 20 71) also started slow but is showing signs of coming on as of late. Matt Joyce (.280 18 64) has been about as consistent as you could ask for, and severalother bats like Ben Zobrist (.271 15 79) and Johnny Damon (.260 14 62) give the Rays a legitimate shot to cut their wildcard deficit even further. Britton will need to be on top of his game with run support as will Niemann who is facing a Baltimore club who plays respectable traditionally in the first half only to lose momentum right after the ASB. The Birds are hitting .255 overall and are 5th in the AL with 166 HR as their struggles are clearly supportive through erratic pitching. Mark Reynolds (.220) leads the team in HR and is second to Adam Jones with 76 RBI. JJ Hardy has missed 40 games due to various injuries but is still hitting .262 with 26 HR and 68 RBI. Wieters is also in the midst of a strong finish to offset the down years for Nick Markakis and Vladimir Guerrero. Still, expect Baltimore to play the role of poiler especially with 15 games left where every game is going to matter most for the strong finishing Rays. Best of luck however you play!