The Tampa Bay Rays have flourished against NL teams, particularly in their most recent series. If that momentum extends into this weekend, they could finish it atop the AL East.
Scott Kazmir has a tough act to follow, pitching a day after teammate Matt Garza threw a one-hitter, but he could lift the Rays into first place as they open a three-game set with the Pittsburgh Pirates.Garza took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and struck out 10 in a 6-1 victory over Florida on Thursday, pulling Tampa Bay (47-31) within a half-game of Boston for the AL East lead."That's the best pitching performance I've ever caught," Rays catcher Shawn Riggans said. "It was fun, a lot of fun."Kazmir (6-3, 2.03 ERA) can only hope to make Friday's game as much fun, though he has been far from his best lately. He's failed to get through six innings in either of his last two outings and needed more than 105 pitches in both."I thought -- and we talked about it -- that maybe he was coming out of his delivery a little bit, trying to throw the ball a little harder," Rays manager Joe Maddon told the team's official Web site.The ace left-hander is 0-2 with a 3.71 ERA in his last three starts after going 6-1 with a 1.40 ERA in his first seven. Kazmir has served up four homers in his past four outings after not allowing one through his first six starts.Tampa Bay has been hitting plenty of home runs lately, with 26 in its last 18 games. Seven of those came in this week's three-game sweep of the Marlins, outscoring them 27-8.After rallying for four runs in the final two innings to win Tuesday, the Rays had their highest-scoring game of the season and had 10 runs in the fifth inning of a 15-3 victory Wednesday.This series concludes a stretch of 15 consecutive games against NL teams. Tampa Bay has gone 9-3 thus far to improve to 10-5 this season in interleague play, tied for third-best in the majors.Kazmir, though, is 4-3 with a 4.88 ERA in 11 interleague starts and has struggled against NL clubs Chicago and Houston in his last two outings. His only start against Pittsburgh was one of his worst as a major leaguer, giving up a career-high nine runs and eight hits in 4 2-3 innings of an 18-2 defeat on June 11, 2005.The Pirates (37-41), though, are 4-7 in interleague play this season. They're two games out of last place in the NL Central."When you arrive and become good, you can't play to the perceived level of the opposition," Maddon said of facing the struggling Pirates. "Every game counts, every game matters."Pittsburgh is coming off a two-game split with the New York Yankees after the teams' series finale was rained out Thursday.However, that game was not called off until the third inning, thus wasting the start made by Paul Maholm for a Pirates staff thin on starters due to injuries to Ian Snell and Phil Dumatrait.That's forcing Pittsburgh to call up Jimmy Barthmaier and John Van Benschoten from Triple-A to start the first two games of this series.Friday will mark the major league debut for Barthmaier, a 24-year-old right-hander who was claimed off waivers during the offseason before being sent to Double-A. He went 2-4 with a 4.86 ERA in 10 starts for Altoona before his promotion in late May to Triple-A Indianapolis, where he was 2-1 with a 2.84 ERA in five starts.