Opposite dugout: Bizarro series as hard to predict as Rays' success so far

rays-logo.jpgManager: Kevin Cash (1st season)

Record: 12-10

Last 10 games: 6-4

Who to watch: OF David DeJesus (.277/.386/.383 with 1 HR, 8 RBIs), 3B Evan Longoria (.293/.393/.427 with 7 2B,1 HR, 4 RBIs), RF Steven Souza Jr. (4 HR, 11 RBIs), CF Kevin Kiermaier (.306/.338/.565 with 2 HR, 7 RBIs), RHP Chris Archer (3-2, 0.84 ERA, 37 Ks), Closer Brad Boxberger (2-1, 1.93 ERA, 5 saves)

Season series vs. Orioles: 1-2

Pitching probables:

May 1: RHP Alex Colome vs. RHP Chris Tillman, 7:05 p.m., MASN2
May 2: RHP Chris Archer vs. RHP Miguel Gonzalez, 7:05 p.m., MASN2
May 3: RHP Nathan Karns vs. LHP Wei-Yin Chen, 1:35 p.m., MASN2

Inside the Rays:

Forgetting for a moment that only 2 1/2 games separates first from last place in the American League East, and ignoring the bizarro circumstances that have the Orioles traveling to St. Petersburg, Fla., for a home series at Tropicana Field because of the ongoing unrest in Baltimore, the Rays have to rank as one of the more surprising stories of 2015.

With longtime manager Joe Maddon bolting for the Cubs, executive Andrew Friedman leaving for the Dodgers and a series of offseason moves that looked a lot like they were only intended to impact the bottom financial line, the Rays were pretty much a consensus pick to finish last in the AL East. They had a rookie manager in Kevin Cash, not much star power past third baseman Evan Longoria and a lot of their hopes were resting on guys who could generously be called question marks. Pundits didn't even call it a rebuilding season; they just weren't sure what to make of the Rays.

Well, the Rays are doing fairly well, thank you very much, and have four- and five-game winning streaks to their credit en route to a 12-10 record. They have a patchwork starting rotation that's about to get an infusion of talent, an AL Rookie of the Year candidate in right fielder Steven Souza Jr. and a bullpen full of relievers who don't know they're not supposed to be this good - and who obviously don't really care, either.

Tampa Bay seems to be defying the statistics, at least offensively. Their .238 team batting average is good for only 23rd-best in the majors and their 87 runs scored rank 22nd. But they have 19 home runs, placing them 13th, and 13 stolen bases to rank 11th out of 30 clubs. Their .382 slugging percentage is middle of the pack at 15th, as is their 282 total bases (16th). Less smoke and mirrors, more making do with what they have. But can the Rays sustain it?

Still, this weekend is going to be, for lack of a better word, weird - think convenience store sushi or a fifth-inning stretch. How else do you explain playing as the gray-clad visiting team in your home ballpark, where a team that conducts spring training an hour away will bat last and hope to continue its resurgent offense.

While Souza has shown he's capable of being a full-time player, at least in the early going, and Longoria is looking a lot better than he did last year (save for a lack of power that can be attributed to a lack of protection in the lineup), the Rays have risen and fallen on the strength of their pitching. Considering that three-fifths of the expected starting rotation - right-handers Alex Cobb (right forearm tightness) and Alex Colome (pneumonia), and lefty Drew Smyly (tendinitis) - started the season on the disabled list, and that lefty Matt Moore is still recovering from April 2014 Tommy John surgery and is not expected back before midseason, that's no small achievement. A lot of the credit goes to first-year skipper Cash, a former catcher.

Colome is scheduled to make his season debut in the Friday series opener, the fifth start of his major league career. He's been sidelined since mid-March, so he'll probably be on a short leash by way of a pitch count. Pitching in a domed stadium will mean he doesn't have to battle the elements, which should help. He picked up a win in his only career start against the O's, working 5 2/3 innings last June 27 at Camden Yards and yielding only one run on two hits and four walks. Current Orioles have only one hit in 10 at-bats against Colome, a Manny Machado single.

The Orioles get a huge challenge on Saturday in the form of righty Chris Archer, who is on an historic roll. He hasn't allowed an earned run in his last four starts and boasts a microscopic 0.84 ERA but only a pedestrian 3-2 record. Because of the rotation injuries, Archer started the season on short rest and hasn't looked back. While March/April has historically been a strong month for him (a 5-3 record and 2.43 ERA in 10 career starts), he's the first pitcher since at least 1914 (records are sketchy 100 years ago) to go three starts with no earned runs allowed and two or fewer hits over at least seven innings in three of his team's first 20 games. He's allowed opponents a .159 batting average and a .215 on-base percentage, and has a ratio of 6.17 strikeouts to every walk. How he'll fare against the Orioles is the question. Archer is 1-3 with a 5.58 ERA in six games (five starts) in his career versus Baltimore. But he's given the Rays length, going into the sixth inning in his last four starts.

While Archer was pushed up in the rotation when injuries hit late in camp, right-hander Nathan Karns wasn't even expecting to make the big league club. But instead of starting the season at Triple-A Charlotte, he started the second game of the season against the Orioles at Tropicana Field. The Birds battered him for six runs in two innings, yet Karns managed to pitch into the sixth inning in that April 7 game, so his 0-1 record, 8.10 ERA and 1.600 career WHIP against the Orioles may be a bit deceiving. Until someone else presents a better option, Cash will probably keep running Karns out there. Last time around, the Orioles were aggressive early, and Karns will need to make some adjustments to prevent the same strategy being effective.

How things will pan out with the Orioles as the home team at The Trop is anyone's guess. Since 2000, the Orioles are 25-24 there, and how local fans will react to an unplanned series at the venue is hard to predict. Then again, no one expected the Rays to be doing as well as they have so far.

Sights and sounds from empty Camden Yards
Wrapping up an 8-2 win

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