Anymore, it seems like the KC Royals are playing a contending team every night. This weekend is no different, as they welcome the Tampa Bay Rays into town for a three-game series. The Rays are coming off a series split with the NY Yankees at home, while the Royals took 2-of-3 from the Chicago White Sox. It is expected to be ungodly hot this weekend in Kansas City (like almost every part of the country), so the series may go to the team that handles the heat better.
This will be the first matchup between the Royals and Rays this season (they head to Tampa the second week of August). After the way the season started for the Rays (and the loss of so many players in the offseason), many expected them to lay down and fold. Instead, they regrouped and relied on their pitching staff and sit 7.5 games back in the American League East.
The offense has been a struggle, as they rank near the bottom of the AL in batting average and OBP, and middle of the pack in runs scored, homeruns, and RBIs. Unfortunately, they rank near the top in strikeouts. Casey Kotchman has come in and taken the first base job and is hitting .333 (though he is not a power threat). Johnny Damon has been a nice addition (.275) and Matt Joyce was the talk of the AL early in the season (he has since cooled off to a .288 average). Sam Fuld is still diving all over the outfield making great catches, but his offense has slowed down to a halt (.244). Evan Longoria and BJ Upton have struggled all season long (both are hitting below .240). Ben Zobrist has been up-and-down, but heâ€™s been one of their most consistent hitters (.265).
That pitching staff consists of CY Young award candidate David Price, the resurgent â€œComplete Gameâ€ James Shields, and the young arms in the rotation. The Rays bullpen was supposed to be in shambles, after losing pretty much everybody from 2010. Insert Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta, who have come in and shut the door in the late innings. The Rays are beginning to lighten Peraltaâ€™s load, as he leads the AL in appearances (and his arm is tired). Lefty JP Howell is back and the young guys (like Brandon Gomes, Cesar Ramos, and Jake McGee) have done a nice job.
The Royals miss the Rays front-line starters, but will have to face the young up-and-comers. On Friday night, Wade Davis will return from the DL to make his first start since the beginning of the month. In a small sampling, Alex Gordon (1-for-3) and Mitch Maier (.400) have good numbers against Davis. He will be opposed by Luke Hochevar, who is coming off a very good start against the Minnesota Twins (two runs on three hits over seven innings). Longoria and Upton love hitting against Hochevar (.500 and .300 respectively).
On Saturday, Jeff Niemann will take the mound for the Rays. He is 3-0 with a 0.71 ERA in his career against the Royals. In his last start against the Boston Red Sox, he completely dominated, allowing just two hits over eight scoreless innings (he struck out 10). Brayan Pena is 2-for-4 in his career against Niemann. He will be opposed by Jeff Francis, who has not won since June 10th but was solid in his last outing. Francis will be making his first start against the Rays.
Rookie Alex Cobb will be making his first start against the Royals on Sunday afternoon. He was recalled from Triple-A Durham to face the Yankees last week and was solid. Cobb allowed just two runs over six innings against the Yankees. He will be opposed by Felipe Paulino, who has only won one of his last eight starts. Like Cobb and Francis, it will be Paulinoâ€™s first start against the Rays.
Friday: Luke Hochevar (5-8, 5.23 ERA) vs. Wade Davis (7-6, 4.25 ERA)
Saturday: Jeff Francis (3-11, 4.62 ERA) vs. Jeff Niemann (4-4, 3.94 ERA)
Sunday: Felipe Paulino (1-3, 3.60 ERA) vs. Alex Cobb (2-0, 3.09 ERA)