In 10 games against the Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners, the first-place Tampa Bay Rays (18-8) won nine with just enough offense and more than enough pitching. During that stretch, they let opponents score four or more runs just three times.
The Oakland A's are the next AL West team up against the surging Rays. Oakland is coming off of a high point in their young season by taking two-of-three in Boston behind impressive pitching outings from Jarrod Parker and Brandon McCarthy. Tampa Bay is the last stop on the A's three-city East Coast road trip, where the Rays -- leaders in the AL East -- are an impressive 12-1.
Joe Maddon's club will have go the next four-to-eight weeks without its premier third baseman, Evan Longoria, who suffered a tear in his hamstring during a game against Seattle on Monday. Elliot Johnson replaced the All-Star slugger initially, and the team promoted infielder Will Ryhmes from Triple-A Durham after placing Longoria on the 15-day disabled list.
Longoria was off to a great start, hitting .329/.443/.561 with four homers, 19 driven in and provided his typically great defense. His team might be used to playing without his services after he missed 26 games to start 2011 before leading the team to a wild card berth. But his absence has his club without one of the premier bats in the American League.
Oakland is one bad ninth inning away in Baltimore from being 4-2 on its current road trip. Instead, the A's sit at 3-3, hoping to win a series in the toughest road ballpark in baseball. They'll be without Coco Crisp, who was put on the disabled list while dealing with a sinus infection. This comes after he missed seven games in April battling a viral infection.
Michael Taylor was promoted from Sacramento and replaced the 11-year vet. It is Taylor's second trip east in a week after he flew to Baltimore last Thursday to join the team in case Crisp was unable to play with his ailment. Crisp was healthy enough to play at the time, causing Taylor to fly back to Sacramento on Saturday.
Taylor was off to a very strong start with the River Cats, hitting .347/.390/.547 with two homers and 18 driven in through 23 games.
A's starter Tyson Ross (1-1, 6.48) will look to rebound from his seven-run, 11-hit performance over four innings in Baltimore when he takes on David Price (4-1, 2.67), who is tough to beat on his home field. In 49 career appearances in Tampa, the 6'6" southpaw is 23-14 with a 2.78 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. He's won three-straight starts, including a road victory over the Rangers in his last start.
Ross has been effective in two of his three outings this year. The exception was his last start in Baltimore, where the numbers look worse than he actually pitched. Ross was singled to death, allowing 10 in four innings with only one extra-base hit and a single walk.
The Rays come into the series hitting just .249, but own the seventh-best slugging percentage (.427) and eighth-best on-base clip (.334) in baseball. When Ross is right, he's getting hitters to ground out at a good rate, putting the onus on the A's infield defense that will have to deal with the quick artificial surface in Tropicana Field.
The newest member of the A's infield is Brandon Inge, who debuted with the club on Monday. He's just 2-for-11 with his new team, and is hitting .129/.182/.290 in 33 plate appearances this year for Oakland and Detroit. But even during his cool start to the season, Inge represents an upgrade at the hot corner with his veteran leadership and glove. Oakland might have to wait a little longer for him to turn around his season, however, as he owns just a .216 career average in Tropicana Field.
On Saturday, Tampa Bay will send right Jeremy Hellickson (3-0, 2.51) to the hill against Bartolo Colon (3-2, 2.53). Hellickson, just 25 years old, boasts a career ERA of 2.97 in his three seasons with the Rays after winning rookie of the year in 2011. He works predominately with two pitches, a fastball and changeup, and pitches to contact very well. He's able to keep hitters off balance, allowing a .230 BABIP.
Colon's pitching style has been very similar this year. He has been throwing mostly fastballs and pitching to contact, and hitters have just a .238 BABIP against him, while Colon has allowed just 34 hits in 42.2 innings. Colon has gone longer than seven innings in five of his six starts so far, allowing more than two runs just once. He was dominant for eight innings in his last start, before two infield hits and defensive mishaps at first base spoiled a potential complete-game victory in Baltimore.
A's lefty Tom Milone (3-2, 3.69) looks to rebound from his worst outing to date, which came on Monday in Boston. Milone went just 4.2 innings, allowing seven earned runs, and lifting his ERA from 2.00 to 3.69. Sunday's start will be the second tough road test in a row for the rookie, who would likely face the Detroit Tigers in his next start in Oakland.
He'll take on fellow rookie Matt Moore (1-1, 4.20), who came into the season rated as the top prospect in baseball. The 22-year-old was drafted in the 8th round of the 2007 draft, proving to be a steal based on his performance in the Rays' system so far. In his five minor league seasons, the left-hander had a 2.64 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, while striking out nearly 13 per nine innings.
Moore hasn't been as dominant in his first season in a major league rotation, however. Moore was a strikeout pitcher in the minors, and MLB hitters have forced him to throw strikes. He's walked 4.5 hitters per nine innings, while giving up 32 hits in 20 frames. Left-handed hitters are seeing the ball very well against him, owning a 1167 OPS against him, with 14 hits in 30 at-bats.
Moore features an explosive fastball averaging nearly 95-MPH, with a change up and a curveball.