Series Preview: A's vs. Devil Rays

Riding a two-game winning streak, the Oakland A's head south to Tampa Bay to take on the Devil Rays for a three-game weekend series. Led by two outstanding starting pitching performances, the A's captured the last two games of their opening series against Baltimore, outscoring the Orioles 14-1. The Devil Rays won the final game of their three game tilt against the Toronto Blue Jays and are 1-2 on this young season.

Who: Oakland A's (2-1) vs. Tampa Bay Devil Rays (1-2)
When: April 8-10
Where: Tropicana Field

Series Overview: The A's finish off a rare early April East Coast road-trip with a three-day swing against the Devil Rays. Oakland recovered from a disappointing Opening Day loss to post two wins against the Baltimore Orioles. The A's pitching was one of the biggest stories of the series, as the young Oakland staff limited the powerful Baltimore line-up to five runs over three games. The A's bullpen worked eight scoreless innings in the series, including two scoreless frames from Ricardo Rincon and three scoreless innings from the newly acquired Kiko Calero. The A's other new acquisitions played a large role in their series win, as well, with new catcher Jason Kendall driving in three runs, starter Dan Haren throwing six solid innings in his first start, second baseman Keith Ginter homering and making a nice defensive play at second, and outfielder Charles Thomas scoring two runs and making an outstanding catch in the outfield. The A's did learn that they would be without shortstop Bobby Crosby for at least two weeks. Crosby is on the DL with a fractured rib.

Tampa Bay dropped the first two games of their series against Toronto and looked to be on their way to being swept before they scored six runs in the bottom of the 8th inning to beat the Blue Jays, 8-5. Star Aubrey Huff had three hits in that game to pace the Devil Ray attack. Second baseman Jorge Cantu (who was given the starting job after Roberto Alomar retired) is off to a fast start, hitting .455 with two homeruns.

Game One: Joe Blanton vs. Rob Bell

Rookie Joe Blanton makes his major league starting debut on Friday night under the dome lights at Tropicana. Blanton will be looking to extend the A's streak of good pitching by their young starters, as both Kirk Saarloos and Dan Haren went six innings in their first starts and allowed only one run between them. Blanton will have plenty of bullpen help at his disposal, as both Juan Cruz and Keiichi Yabu have yet to pitch and Justin Duchscherer has only thrown one inning (and that was on Monday). All three would be available to go for multiple innings should Blanton run into early trouble against the Devil Rays. Blanton has never seen the Tampa Bay hitters before. He is coming off of a solid spring and should benefit from facing an aggressive Tampa Bay line-up in that he will be able to pitch to contact early in the counts.

Blanton will be opposed by Rob Bell, who went 8-8 with a 4.46 ERA for Tampa Bay last season. Bell is a location pitcher who mixes in change-ups, curveballs and split-fingered fastballs to off-set his mid-80s fastball. He is coming off of a solid spring where he had a 3.58 ERA over 27.2 innings pitched. Bell did not face the A's last season, but he has seen a few of their hitters before. Eric Chavez and Mark Ellis have had the most historical success against Bell. Chavez has seven hits in 20 at-bats against the right-hander, including four doubles and a homerun. Ellis is 7-14 lifetime against Bell with two RBI. The middle infielder is likely to get the start on Friday, as he sat the last two games in Baltimore. Mark Kotsay and Erubiel Durazo have also homered against Bell and Jason Kendall is 3-8 lifetime.

Game Two: Barry Zito vs. Hideo Nomo

Game two of the series will feature a match-up of a former Cy Young winner against a former Rookie of the Year. Zito is coming off of an uneven performance on Opening Day against the Orioles. He struggled with the location of his fastball early and allowed four runs in the first four frames. However, he settled down to pitch scoreless innings in the fifth and sixth and seemed to find the command of his fastball during those last two innings. He threw 101 pitches in those six innings, allowing one homerun and walking three. Two of his three walks came around to score.

Zito was brilliant in his only outing against the Devil Rays last season. In that August 21 start, the A's lefty went eight innings, allowing no runs and four hits in a 5-0 A's win. Zito struck out six in that game against only one walk. Control will be a key for Zito, who will look to keep his pitch count down so that he can go past the sixth inning in this start. Zito struggled against lefthanded hitters last season and will see two good ones in Huff and Carl Crawford on Saturday. Huff has struggled in his career against Zito, but Crawford has had success with four hits in 11 at-bats. Zito does not field his position particularly well, so look for an aggressive Tampa Bay squad to test him with a few bunt attempts in this game. Tampa Bay will likely use righthanded DH Josh Phelps against Zito and he has pounded lefties at a 908 OPS over his career.

The A's will be relying on their cadre of former National League players to give them a scouting report on Nomo, who uses an unusual corkscrew throwing motion to deceive the hitters. Jason Kendall and Mark Kotsay have seen Nomo the most of anyone on the team and neither has had a particularly large amount of success against him. In fact, the A's may choose to rest Kotsay on Sunday against Nomo, as the A's centerfielder is 6-36 against his former National League West foe with ten strikeouts. Kendall is 6-24 against the Japanese righthander. After strong 2002 and 2003 campaigns for the LA Dodgers, Nomo had a nightmarish 2004 campaign, posting an 8.25 ERA for the Dodgers. He allowed 19 homers in only 84 innings pitched and walked 42 batters over that span. He was picked up in the off-season by the Devil Rays to give Tampa Bay some experience in the back-end of their rotation.

Game Three: Rich Harden vs. Dewon Brazelton

Young guns Rich Harden and Dewon Brazelton square off in the final game of the series. Harden will be making his first start of the season after being scratched for his regularly scheduled start on Wednesday due to a blister on his throwing hand. The Canadian righthander signed a four-year extension with the A's before Opening Day and is coming off of a stellar second half of the 2004 season when he went 8-2 and was the A's most effective pitcher down the stretch. Harden was 11-7 with a 3.99 ERA overall in his sophomore campaign.

Harden uses an easy delivery to throw an exploding mid- to high-90s fastball. He also throws a split-fingered fastball, a slider and a change-up. The A's righthander saw the Devil Rays twice last season, and both outings resulted in A's wins. He allowed one run in six innings in his first start and five runs in 5.1 innings in his second start. Harden will be happy not to see the injured Rocco Baldelli, who has four hits in seven career at-bats against Harden. The A's righty will have to watch out for Crawford and Huff, however. Crawford is a sizzling 6-12 and Huff is 3-10 with four RBI and a homerun lifetime against Harden.

Brazelton had a solid first outing on Opening Day this season but was bested by former Cy Young winner Roy Halladay. Brazelton allowed three runs in 7.1 innings pitched against the Blue Jays. He didn't walk a batter. The A's saw Brazelton twice last season. He was terrific in his first outing, allowing only a solo homerun by Erubiel Durazo over seven strong innings of work at Tropicana Field. Brazelton raised the ire of the A's in that game when he plunked Durazo in his next at-bat after the homerun. The A's responded against Brazelton in his next outing, crushing him for five runs in only four innings of work. The young righty has historically pitched extremely well at home but has been ineffective on the road. He features a low-90s fastball with movement and a wicked change-up. Durazo, Eric Byrnes and Chavez have all homered against Brazelton in their careers.

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