That the Rays are playing a series with even the slightest amount of playoff implications in mid-September is somewhat of an accomplishment.
How big the matchup with the A's that starts tonight at the Trop is depends on your perspective.
For the A's, it's just another stop — albeit a long way from home — on their unexpected charge into the playoffs. Though their six-game winning streak ended Thursday night in Baltimore, they remain within 3- 1/2 games of the AL West-leading Astros and 1-1/2 of the first wild card-holding Yankees. The A's have been the best team in the majors since mid-June with a 55-22 record and are 89-58 overall, fourth-best in the AL.
For the Rays, it's a bigger deal, realistically their last chance to get from the fringe to actually in the race. As well as they've played after their own slow start in posting an 80-65 record, they go into Friday's opener eight games back, latching on to the potential of a three-game sweep to get within five heading into the final two weeks of the season. Anything less than that and their hopes would rest on a total collapse by the A's or Yankees.
The Rays and A's are similar in a few ways, as colleague Martin Fennelly wrote about, and also how they got to this point on the field, overcoming a series of injuries and issues with their starting pitching staffs with creative solutions.
In fact, Saturday could be somewhat historic — and maybe known as Brian Kenny Day in honor of the MLB Network host championing this strategy — as both teams are likely to use an opener to pitch the first inning or two and then follow with a pitcher to work the bulk of the innings.
Though not quite the showdown series it could have been had the Rays been in position to pull even or surpass the A's, there is enough hype for the weekend games, including ticket specials, that Rays manager Kevin Cash is curious to see how his mostly young team responds.
"I'm excited to see how the guys come in and perform,'' Cash said. "It's being talked about. I kind of like the fact that it's being talked about. Let's see. Put some added emphasis on it and see how we respond. I'm going to guess that we'll handle it well because they've handled all the challenges really well to this point.''
The Rays won three of four when the teams played in Oakland in late May, though many of the faces have changed.
Also of note, while Cash has been getting talked up as candidate for the AL Manager of the Year honors, Oakland's Bob Melvin seems the favorite.
The A's come in with some familiar faces, including ex-Rays RHP Edwin Jackson, Tampa product OF Matt Joyce and RHP Fernando Rodney.
Jackson, slated to start tonight, is, at age 35, pitching for his 13th team; having thrown more for the Rays than any of the others. Struggling a bit after a quick start with the A’s, he is 3-3, 3.98 over his career against the Rays, including a 149-pitch no-hitter in 2010 for Arizona.
* 3B Matt Duffy (backs) is eyeing a return to the lineup Friday after being out for three games.
* LHP Ryan Yarbrough, slated to work after opener RHP Diego Castillo on Friday, is seeking a team rookie record 15th win.
* Lower level corner seats have been reduced to $10 for the Saturday and Sunday games.
* Triple-A Durham moved to within one win of a second straight International League championship with a 3-0 win Thursday over Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees) to take a 2-1 lead in the best of five series. Game 4 is tonight.
* Class A Bowling Green lost 2-1 to Peoria (Cardinals) and is even in the best-of-five Midwest League championship series. Game 3 is at home on Saturday.