ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays continue to win games they perhaps shouldn't, and they'll have an opportunity for more of that Saturday against Houston's Justin Verlander.
The Rays (40-41) hit the midway point of their 2018 season with a 3-2 win over Houston, giving them six wins in their last seven games. Their pitching has led the way -- three times in the last four games, they have held their opponent to three hits or less, this after doing so only three times in the first 77 games of this season.
"If we are going to win a lot of game and we are going to string a bunch together, we have to have good pitching," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "The timely hitting is great, but we have to stay in the ballgame. For us to have allowed three runs in 18 innings against arguably the best team in baseball, we should find a way to win one."
Houston will send Verlander, who has been dominant (9-3, 1.82 ERA) but has gotten surprisingly little run support from a potent Astros lineup.
Houston is just 11-7 in games he starts, and the Astros have scored a total of two runs in five of those losses.
So Saturday could look like Thursday's 1-0 Astros win, or could look like Friday's 3-2 loss, which saw two errors factor in Tampa Bay's scoring.
Verlander faced the Rays just 11 days ago in Houston, again pitching well, allowing one run on six hits in 6 2/3 innings, but ultimately taking a no-decision in a 2-1 loss. He has 136 strikeouts in 113 innings this season and a ridiculous 0.81 WHIP.
Against the Rays for his career, Verlander is 8-3 with a 3.18 ERA, but since 2010, he's just 4-3, despite a 1.72 ERA in his last five starts against the Rays. At Tropicana Field, he's 5-2 all-time with a 2.53 ERA, including a 1.20 ERA in his last two outings.
The Rays counter with reliever-turned-starter Ryne Stanek, who has thrived in the "opener" role that Tampa Bay has essentially created in the past six weeks. He's starting for the second time in three days against the Astros having thrown 1 2/3 innings of scoreless, hitless baseball Thursday night. For the month of June, he's pitched in 11 games and 14 2/3 innings without allowing a run.
He's held opponents to just four hits, lowering his season ERA to 1.85, just barely above Verlander's.
The Astros know they have to be careful with the white ceiling of Tropicana Field -- the Rays' three-run fourth inning got a spark Friday when center fielder Jake Marisnick couldn't hold onto a pop at the warning track, allowing a run to score.
"When you play here, you try to not take your eye off the ball," Marisnick said. "With the ceiling, I kind of glanced quickly at the ball, then looked back up and lost track. I wasn't able to come up with it. That's a play I need to make 10 out of 10 times."