ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays were beaten by the slimmest of margins in the series opener, and the Houston Astros' dominating starting pitching gets another chance to showcase itself at Tropicana Field on Friday night.
On Thursday, it was Lance McCullers pitching a gem close to his hometown of Tampa, and on Friday, the Rays will try to create some offense against Gerrit Cole, who has been stellar in his first season in Houston.
Cole is 9-1 with a 2.56 ERA, and his only start without a win in his last five appearances came against the Rays on June 18. He threw seven innings and gave up four earned runs on three hits and five walks, and the Astros still won in his only career outing against the Rays.
Houston (55-28) is 18-3 in its last 21 games, with pitching leading the way. The Astros got a solo home run in the seventh inning from Jake Marisnick on Thursday, and that's all they needed in a 1-0 victory that handed the Rays their 20th one-run loss of the season.
"It stinks when you lose 1-0. We won a ballgame 1-0 two days ago, so everything has to go right. ... That's the way it goes sometimes. Very, very pleased with our pitching. It kept us in every inning to give us a chance to tie it or take the lead."
On Friday, the Rays will again turn to a converted reliever as the starter, though Wilmer Font (1-3, 6.46) has had the best success of any Rays "opener" at stretching himself out into longer outings. He has managed to go a little longer than his previous start in each of his four starts in June. That includes going 5 2/3 innings of scoreless baseball against the Yankees last time out.
In those four June starts, his ERA is 1.80, allowing just three earned runs in his last 16 innings. That's remarkable for a pitcher who came to the Rays four weeks ago with a 11.37 ERA.
Friday's start will be his first appearance against the Astros as a member of the Rays, but he has appeared in two other games against Houston this season -- one as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers and one as a member of the Oakland A's.
With the Dodgers, he faced Houston in April, giving up three runs (on three solo home runs) in two innings. In May, Font faced the Astros while with Oakland, this time allowing seven hits and five earned runs in 2 2/3 innings. His season ERA against Houston is a whopping 15.43.
The Astros are leading their division and the defending World Series champions may still be picking up momentum. Marisnick, for instance, hit .143 in April and .171 in May, but is hitting .286 in June and his on-base percentage is more than double what it was entering the month.
"He's not carrying the negativity that came with the first part of the season with him, and it's good to watch him play relaxed," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "He's a tremendous athlete when he's relaxed, and it's translating into some really good at-bats."
Houston is already two games into the second half of its season, while the Rays will hit their midway point with Friday's game, still trying to get back above .500 for the season.