ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- As the up-and-down Tampa Bay Rays drift back toward .500 again, there's a question for their past month: How can they be so good against good opponents and so bad against bad ones?
The Rays (56-55) go into Sunday's series finale with the White Sox (40-70) trying to avoid a series sweep, much like they did recently against the Orioles (33-78) in dropping three of four. They took one of three from the Marlins (46-66) and one of four from the Twins (51-58), but in the same span the Rays are a combined 5-1 against the Yankees and Angels.
"I feel like everybody is trying to do too much," Rays third baseman Matt Duffy said after a 2-1 loss Saturday. "I think we need to relax a little bit and put together good at-bats and calm down."
Tampa Bay has 19 losses when allowing three runs or fewer, the most such losses in the majors. The Rays have 11 losses when allowing two runs or fewer, one off the club season record with 51 games to play.
As they try to right the ship, they'll have to do so against the winningest pitcher in their 21-year history, James Shields, now a member of the White Sox. He still holds Rays franchise career records for wins (87) and strikeouts (1,250). He had eight career shutouts with Tampa Bay -- no other Rays pitcher has more than three -- and 19 career complete games for Tampa Bay, also easily the most.
Shields (4-13, 4.56 ERA) has struggled this season as he has since joining the White Sox -- he is 13-32 with them -- after leaving the Rays with an 87-73 record. He has dominated his former team in the past, with a 3-0 mark in four starts and a 1.37 ERA, allowing four earned runs in four starts. Earlier this season, he took a no-decision, giving up one run on four hits in 6 1/3 innings against Tampa Bay.
The Rays, still filling a patchwork rotation with relievers as "openers," will do so again Sunday with rookie Hunter Wood, a 24-year-old right-hander making his fifth career start. He doesn't last long enough to be eligible for wins, but the Rays are 4-0 in his starts this season.
For the season he is 0-0, but carries a 3.05 ERA. His last outing Thursday against the Angels was dominating, with five strikeouts in six outs, allowing one hit in two innings. Over his last three outings, he has recorded 16 outs with 12 via strikeout.
He has never faced the White Sox.
"Both sides obviously didn't have the offensive output," White Sox manager Rick Renteria said Saturday after his team's win. "We ended up being able to squeak out the last run."
Renteria watched the end of the game from the clubhouse after being ejected, though he said he understands that his ejection was automatic for leaving the dugout to dispute a review ruling.
"I just clearly disagreed," he said. "There's nothing I could have done to overturn it obviously. They're doing their job. You're not allowed to expose yourself to conversations with the umpire once the replay call is done, because the review is done in New York City."