Opposite dugout: In red-hot AL East, surprising Rays are right at top of the group

rays-logo.jpgManager: Kevin Cash (first season)

Record: 35-29

Last 10 games: 7-3

Who to watch: 3B Evan Longoria (.266/.344/.408 with 6 HR, 28 RBIs), 2B Logan Forsythe (.264/.346/.431 with 7 HR, 28 RBIs), RF Steven Souza Jr. (12 HR, 29 RBIs), RHP Chris Archer (7-4, 2.00 ERA), RHP Brad Boxberger (17 saves, 3.04 ERA)

Season series vs. Nationals: First meeting (1-2 in 2012)

Pitching probables:

June 15: LHP Gio Gonzalez vs. RHP Erasmo Ramirez, 7:10 p.m., MASN2
June16: RHP Tanner Roark vs. RHP Alex Colome, 7:10 p.m., MASN2
June 17: RHP Matt Andriese vs. TBA, 7:05 p.m., MASN2
June 18: RHP Chris Archer vs. TBA, 7:05 p.m., MASN

Inside the Rays:

The American League East may be the hottest division in baseball right now. The Blue Jays have won 11 games in a row, the Yankees started the month of June by winning seven in a row and the Orioles just won two out of three against the Yanks after sweeping Boston. The top four teams in the division are separated by only three games in the standings while the Red Sox dwell at the bottom, seven games back. And would you believe the Rays are right in the thick of it, having gone 8-4 to start June and sitting right with New York atop the division?

The Rays were supposed to be rebuilding this year after manager Joe Maddon left for the Cubs. But they have found a way to win behind strong pitching. The Rays staff leads the majors in saves (29) and batting average against (.231) while leading the AL in ERA (3.29) and coming in second in runs (222), earned runs (209) and strikeouts (545). Pretty impressive, especially considering how young this staff is with no regular starter older than 27.

They also have some good young talent playing the field. Nationals fans should remember Steven Souza Jr. Yes, the same Steven Souza Jr. who made a diving catch for the final out to preserve Jordan Zimmermann's no-hitter on the last day of the regular season last year. All the right fielder has done since being traded to Tampa Bay is lead the team in home runs (12) and RBIs (29). He'll be making his return to Nationals Park in the second part of this home-and-home two-game series (this four-game stretch qualifies as two separate series).

Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera will also be facing the Nats for the first time since his departure from D.C. He signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent this past offseason, but has only hit .206 with three homers and 15 RBIs. On the other hand, third baseman Evan Longoria is making his usual contributions to the Rays offense by slashing .266/.344/.408 and adding six home runs and 28 RBIs. Second baseman Logan Forsythe is right there with Longoria, posting a line of .264/.346/.431 and knocking seven home runs and 28 RBIs of his own. By relying on pitching a lot, the Rays don't score a lot of runs, so most of their offensive threats come from these couple of players.

But pitching is a different story. Right-hander Erasmo Ramirez starts this four-game stretch for the Rays at Tropicana Field. With a 4.96 ERA, Ramirez has gone back and forth between starting and coming out of the bullpen for the Rays, but has shown he prefers to start. In 15 appearances this season, he has gone 5-2 with a 4.43 ERA in eight starts, while posting a 6.75 ERA in seven appearances as a reliever. He is 2-1 with a 3.21 ERA in eight appearances (four starts) at home this season. Although Ramirez has never faced the Nationals, he hasn't fared well in interleague battles, only going 1-3 with a 7.65 ERA in nine appearances in his career.

Righty Alex Colome closes out the two-game series at the Trop. He is 3-2 with a 4.21 ERA this season, but the Rays have lost each of his last four starts, although he only earned the decision in one of those games. He does fare slightly better at home than the road, going 2-1 with a 3.71 ERA in St. Petersburg, Fla. This start against the Nats will not only be his first against Washington, but also his first interleague appearance. Colome throws a 94 mph fastball 59 percent of the time and an 87 mph slider 23 percent of the time, while mixing in an 85 mph change up and 78 mph curveball.

Rookie righty Matt Andriese will try to follow up his first major league win by earning his first road victory at Nats Park when the series shifts to D.C. on Wednesday. On Friday, Andriese went 5 2/3 innings and gave up six hits, two runs (none earned) and one walk while striking out five to earn his first win over the White Sox. He threw 85 pitches, 55 for strikes. The 25-year-old rookie throws a 91 mph fastball 57 percent of the time, an 87 mph cut fastball 24 percent of the time, and has a 78 mph curveball and an 84 mph changeup. Although he faced the Marlins in one inning of relief earlier this year, his start against the Nationals will be his first interleague start.

At 27, Chris Archer is the seasoned veteran of this group and will start the Thursday finale. He leads the team in wins and qualified ERA at 7-4 and 2.00, respectively. The Rays are enjoying his starts lately, going 6-1 in his last seven, five of which Archer has gone at least seven innings. He's been phenomenal on the road by going 5-0 in five starts with a 0.51 ERA and allowing only three runs (two earned). Archer is the only Rays starter in these two-game series to have faced the Nats before, albeit only once. On June 20, 2012, he went six innings and allowed three hits, three runs (one earned) and one walk while striking out seven and taking the 3-2 loss at Nats Park.

This year marks the first time these two franchises will play a home-and-home series in the same season. The last time these two teams met the Nats won two out of three in D.C. Since the franchise came to Washington in 2005, the Rays are 5-4 against the Nationals, 3-0 at home and 2-4 at Nationals Park. If the Rays are going to improve that mark, their young pitchers are going to have to continue to show their worth by going toe-to-toe against the stout, yet banged-up Nats rotation.

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