Thursday, April 21, 2011Posted: 11:20 AM
A loss to the Chicago White Sox earlier this month dropped the defending AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays to 0-6 for the first time in franchise history.
Another victory over the White Sox can put the Rays over .500 for the first time this season.
Tampa Bay goes for its first four-game sweep of Chicago on Thursday night when the visiting White Sox try to avoid their eighth straight defeat.
Since a 5-1 loss at Chicago (7-11) on April 7, the Rays (9-9) have won nine of 12 to join the 1991 Seattle Mariners as the only teams since 1900 to reach .500 in April after opening the season with six losses.
"The fact that we're back to that level is great, but our goal is well above .500," manager Joe Maddon said following Wednesday's 4-1 victory.
While Tampa Bay is batting .297 and scoring 5.0 runs per game during its 8-1 stretch - up from .163 and 2.2 during its first nine games - the team's starters are 6-1 with a 2.22 ERA during this recent run, a vast improvement from their 5.26 ERA through nine games.
Jeff Niemann (0-2, 6.32 ERA), who starts the series finale, also pitched better in his last start. After allowing 10 runs in his first two outings, the right-hander struck out a season-high six in Saturday's 4-3 win over Minnesota, giving up three runs and eight hits in seven innings.
"I was more comfortable in what I was seeing," Maddon told the Rays' official website.
That wasn't the case in a 6-1 loss in Chicago on April 10 when Niemann lasted just 2 2-3 innings, yielding five runs and five hits.
He had been 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA in his previous two starts against the White Sox.
Niemann faces a Chicago team that has scored 13 runs during its seven-game skid, including just two in the first three games of this series. Paul Konerko, Alex Rios, Gordon Beckham and Adam Dunn are hitting a combined .129 (13 for 101) during the slide.
"We had better at-bats (Wednesday)," manager Ozzie Guillen said. "That's all you can do. Go and fight for your at-bats, and see what happens."
While the White Sox's bullpen has received plenty of blame with a major league-high six blown saves, the starting rotation is also struggling, posting a 5.57 ERA in the last five games after Phil Humber surrendered four runs in 5 1-3 innings Wednesday.
Gavin Floyd (1-1, 4.29) will try to help Chicago avoid its first eight-game skid since Sept. 14-21 and split the eight-game season series with Tampa Bay. The right-hander improved to 3-1 with a 2.48 ERA against the Rays after striking out eight and allowing one unearned run in eight innings April 10.
Floyd, though, gave up season highs with six runs and eight hits in Saturday's 7-2 loss against the Los Angeles Angels. He also threw three wild pitches in six innings.
Floyd probably wouldn't mind if Rays left fielder Johnny Damon misses a fourth straight game with an injured left ring finger. Damon is 11 for 19 with a homer off Floyd.
White Sox right fielder Carlos Quentin, 1 for 9 off Niemann, is batting .438 (14 for 32) on the road after homering Wednesday.
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