MINNEAPOLIS -- Two of the hotter teams in baseball face off Thursday night when the Tampa Bay Rays travel to Minnesota where they open a four-game series with the Twins at Target Field.
Tampa Bay extended its winning streak to five games Wednesday with a 4-2 victory over Detroit and arrive in Minnesota having won 14 of their last 18 games to improve to 48-44 on the season. It assures them no worse than a .500 record at the All-Star break.
"We're getting a lot of buy-in from guys right now," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "We're asking starters to come out of the bullpen, we're asking relievers to open games for us. They all want roles, and I want them to have roles, but they're also buying in."
That still leaves them 16 games behind the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox and nine back of Seattle for the final AL wild-card spot -- with equally surprising Oakland in the way, too. Optimism is high in the Rays' clubhouse.
"We're just getting started," center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said.
The Rays will go for six in a row behind left-hander Blake Snell (12-4), who gets his first start since being left off the American League All-Star squad despite leading the league with a 2.09 ERA when the selections were made.
He has dropped to second since, .04 behind Houston's Justin Verlander, but Snell is 8-1 with a 1.27 ERA over his last 10 starts
"I'm optimistic that things are going to turn out OK for Blake," said Cash, a member of the AL All-Star coaching staff. "A lot of us throughout baseball feel that he's deserving. Saying that, the guys that were selected are also very deserving. It's a product of the system a little bit."
There is still a chance he will be named to the squad, but Snell admitted it would not be the same.
"I feel like being an alternate, it's not satisfying," Snell said. "I feel like I earned it, but being an alternate, it doesn't feel the same."
Snell is 1-0 with a 4.41 ERA in three career starts against Minnesota, and he was the winning pitcher when he faced the Twins on April 21, allowing one run on five hits over seven innings in a 10-1 Rays victory.
He will hope for similar success Thursday against the Twins, who have won six of their last seven games.
Brian Dozier has been a big reason for that success. He extended his hitting streak to six games with a 3-for-5 effort that included his third home run in four games Wednesday against Kansas City. Dozier has a .961 OPS since the start of July.
"Everything feels good, has for a long time now -- you just ride the wave," Dozier said. "We've played some good baseball here lately. Six out of the last seven. This homestand, coming in we knew we had to do some damage. But still got a little ways to go, couple more games before the break."
Another big night from Dozier would be welcomed by Kyle Gibson (3-6, 3.59 ERA), who will start for the Twins on Thursday.
The right-hander has been hamstrung by a lack of run support at times this season but hasn't done himself any favors of late, posting a 5.21 ERA over his last three starts.
Gibson is 1-5 with a 6.81 ERA in seven starts previous career starts against the Rays. He was the losing pitcher in that April 21 game against Tampa Bay when Snell got the win. Gibson allowed four runs and five hits while striking out seven over 6 1/3 innings.