Rays Win Series, Take AL East Lead

The Tampa Bay Rays won their second consecutive road series on Sunday, defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates in the rubber-match of a three-game set. Backed by Shawn Riggans' 3-for-4 performance and Andy Sonnanstine's seven effective innings, the Rays closed out their road trip with a 5-1 record. With the win and a Boston loss, Tampa Bay now has a one-half game lead in the American League East.

The Tampa Bay Rays won their second consecutive road series on Sunday, defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates in the rubber-match of a three-game set. Backed by Shawn Riggans' 3-for-4 performance and Andy Sonnanstine's seven effective innings, the Rays closed out their road trip with a 5-1 record.

With the Boston Red Sox losing two of three down in Houston, Tampa Bay now has a one-half game lead in the American League East. Even more impressive, the club improved its record to 49-32, the best mark in all of Major League Baseball.

Troy Percival earned his 18th save in 20 chances, striking out two to close the door with a scoreless ninth. It was an important outing for Percival, who had given up a run in his previous three appearances.

"We went 5-1 on the trip and I felt we let one slip away," said Percival, who walked four batters in a shaky ninth inning against the Florida Marlins in his last outing. "You get too that point, you've got a team that's doing something special."

The Rays are the best team in baseball at the midway point, and have relied on their excellent starting pitching and defense to get to there. With Carlos Pena returning to action and an expected offensive turnaround from Carl Crawford—who has had a disappointing first half, .731 OPS—the club has a realistic chance to live up to its 2008 PECOTA projection by winning 88 games, if not more.

Monday marks the opening of a crucial three-game series with the Rays' new rival, the Boston Red Sox, at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay swept Boston at home at the end of April, but lost all three games and several players to suspensions in the entertaining series at Fenway Park earlier in the month. Coco Crisp, the instigator of the infamous brawl between the two division foes, will miss the series, but Jonathan Papelbon—who issued a warning for the Rays following the incident—will likely make an appearance in the next few days.

Regardless of what happens, for the first time—well, ever—a July series at the Trop will actually have a significant impact on the AL East standings. James Shields, who threw a one-hit complete game against Boston on April 27, will take the ball for the Rays. Despite a 5-5 record, Shields ranks second in the AL in complete games (two), ninth in WHIP (1.16) and 11th in strikeouts (83), and has limited opponents to a line of .254/.298/.396 in a team-leading 103.0 innings pitched.

It is only fitting that Shields will take the ball in the opener. It was the talented right-hander, of course, who struck Crisp on that eventful June night, retaliating a day after the Red Sox outfielder went into second base spikes high to take out Tampa Bay second baseman Akinori Iwamura. Iwamura, who is still serving his suspension for his role in the ensuing brawl, was not even the intended target, as Crisp was gunning for Tampa Bay shortstop Jason Bartlett. Shields was dealt the loss that night, though he was ejected after allowing four earned runs in one inning. After a few rough outings, he turned in a strong performance against Florida on Wednesday, when he scattered four hits and allowed only one earned run in the Rays' 15-1 rout down in Miami.

Crisp dodges Shields' punch in the brawl earlier this month.

It isn't just Red Sox fans packing the Trop anymore, writes Marc Lancaster.

The Red Sox present high stakes for the first-place Rays, writes Mark Topkin.

The two clubs have a history of violence, writes Roger Mooney.

The upstart Rays are no longer an easy prey for the Red Sox, writes Steven Krasner.

Percival Back On Track, Hopefully

While Troy Percival earned the save in the Rays' win on Tuesday in the opener of the series against the Florida Marlins, his shaky performance led to speculation that he was injured. The veteran righty walked a career-high four batters before getting out of the jam by allowing only one earned run. Following the poor showing, he then complained about his left hamstring, which has aggravated him for much of the spring and forced him to spend some time on the disabled list earlier this month. Percival, who came off the DL on June 14, ranks seventh in the American League is saves and has posted a stellar 0.88 WHIP in 27.1 innings pitched. He has also been a tremendous influence on the Rays' younger players, helping to establish a culture of winning in the clubhouse and bullpen. The Rays need him down the stretch, though, so it is crucial for him to stay healthy in the second half.

A few days of rest were good for Percival, whose velocity was back up in the 91-to-92 MPH range on Sunday, writes Joe Smith. Within this notebook there is word that Rocco Baldelli wrapped up his rehab stint with Vero Beach and could jump up a level after he is reevaluated by team doctors on Monday.

Riggans Makes Most Of Start

Tampa Bay backup catcher Shawn Riggans made the most of his start on Sunday afternoon, going 3-for-4 with a homer, his fourth of the year, and two RBIs to lead Tampa Bay to a 4-3 victory in the rubber game of a three-game series against Pittsburgh. Riggans broke a scoreless tie in the fourth inning with a solo shot to center field. In a limited role, the 27-year-old backstop is batting .274/.313/.479 with 15 RBIs in 73 at-bats. In his last start behind the plate, Thursday in the Rays' series finale against the Florida Marlins, he doubled and scored a run while catching one of the strongest pitching performances in Tampa Bay history. Matt Garza tossed nine shutout innings, surrendering only a home run to Florida shortstop Hanley Ramirez that afternoon. On Sunday, he caught another excellent pitching performance, as Andy Sonnanstine tossed seven strong innings to become the first Rays starter to win nine games this season.

The Rays were far from perfect, but an unlikely hero, Riggans, helped the Rays end their road trip with five wins in six games, writes Joe Smith.

Sonnanstine Earns Ninth Win

Andy Sonnanstine became the first Tampa Bay starter to win nine games on Sunday afternoon, allowing two runs, one earned, on five hits in the Rays' 4-3 series–clinching win over the Pirates. Sonnanstine struck out four while walking one to improve to 9-3 on the season. While the 25-year-old Kent State product has had his fair share of run support this season, he has kept his team in nearly every game that he has started. In fact, the Rays are undefeated in his last five outings. His win-loss record is a bit misleading, however, as he entered his start on Sunday with an opponents' line of .303/.331/.474, for the highest OPS against (.805) of any Tampa Bay starter. Scott Kazmir, on the other hand, has posted a stellar .577 opponents' OPS.

With the win, though, the Rays improve to 49-32. And combined with a Red Sox loss, the club now has sole possession of first place in the American League East.

Minor League Notes:

Cummings: From Taiwan To North Carolina

Jeremy Cummings, a career minor leaguer, has one goal left in his professional career: to reach the majors. Cummings, who began the 2008 season in Taiwan, is perhaps inching closer to that dream with every start. After signing with Durham as a free agent in May, he has been one of the most effective starting pitchers in the International League over the past two months. He tossed seven innings of one-run ball in the Bulls' 5-1 victory over the Richmond Braves on Sunday, improving his record to 7-2. The right-hander has registered a 2.72 ERA in 10 starts. In 59.2 innings pitched, he has allowed only 19 runs, 18 earned, while posting a 55-to-14 K/W ratio and an opponents' batting average of .201. Cummings has come a long way since the St. Louis Cardinals selected him out of West Virginia University in the 1999 draft, but if he can continues to make pitching against Triple-A competition look this easy, his dream of the reaching the majors may just come true after all; if not with Tampa Bay, an organization stacked with pitching prospects, then perhaps another franchise in the future.

Cummings is still going for his dream, writes Madeline Perez.

Davis, Rollins Suffer Losses On Sunday

Wade Davis' record dropped to 7-6 on Sunday, as he allowed all five earned runs in the Biscuits' 5-4 loss to the Mobile BayBears, raising his ERA to 4.14. He struck out seven while only walking one, but surrendered seven hits, including two homers, in the loss.

Heath Rollins was the tough-luck losing pitcher in the Vero Beach Devil Rays' 2-1 loss against the Sarasota Reds on Sunday. Rollins pitched well enough to earn a win, scattering three hits and one earned run in six impressive innings. The Devil Rays' offense, however, could only muster one hit off of four Sarasota pitchers, leaving the former Winthrop star on the hook for the loss.

Rollins enjoyed a fine season in 2007, going 17-4 with a 2.54 ERA, 149-to-38 K/W ratio and .223 opponents' average to guide—along with top prospect Jeremy Hellickson— the Columbus Catfish to the South Atlantic League Championship. He has struggled at times (he drops to 4-7 with the loss) in High Single-A this year. While he does not have the stellar record going for him again, though, the 23-year-old has still posted a 3.90 ERA and 88-to-18 K/W ratio in 94.2 innings pitched.

Other Links:

Evan Longoria is long on talent, writes Chris Harry.

Carl Crawford's four-game suspension provided him with some necessary rest, writes Roger Mooney.

This guy will certainly be at the game tomorrow night, will you?

The Cowbell Kid, by the way, was not happy with how he was portrayed in his Tampa Bay On Demand feature.

I was sorry to hear that Will Leitch is leaving Deadspin, moving on to bigger and better things. But his most recent interview with Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights who verbally assaulted Leitch on Costas Now, is a must read.

Bartlett Is Where He Belongs

I have received some emails saying that Jason Barlett should move up in the lineup, to the leadoff or two spot in the Tampa Bay batting order. Just because a player is "scrappy" or "a good bunter" or a good guy for the "hit-and-run" (really all of the subjective ways people associate with what a leadoff hitter should do) does not mean that they are a good fit for the top of the batting order. As of this writing, Barltett ranks last among those who qualify with a terrible .579 OPS. Yes, he has stolen 15 bases, but any player with a sub-.300 on-base percentage does not deserve to bat anywhere near the top of the lineup, at least not for teams that are in the business of winning baseball games.

Listen, Bartlett's play at shortstop has been a major asset for the Rays, as he provides the club with a capable defensive option at the position for the first time in a long time. But while his poor first-half is based off a relatively small sample size, he does not have the track record, offensively, for Joe Maddon to justify batting him at the top of a major league lineup. While he should improve a bit over the next 81 games—though he tends to cool off in September, with a career batting average of .205 in the month—we are almost at the All-Star break, and he has yet to hit a home run. Even worse, he has only seven extra-base hits in nearly 300 at-bats. Bartlett has stabilized the infield, though, and deserves to play on a regular basis solely for that reason. Any thing that he provides with the bat is really just a bonus. So, yeah, the nine hole is where he belongs.

Now that Barlett's wife, Kelly, has delivered the couple's first child, though, perhaps he will begin to get more selective at the plate.

To contact Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.

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