Even when they've been winning, runs haven't come easy for the Tampa Bay Rays lately. With David Price on the hill, it usually doesn't matter.
Price looks to reclaim the major league lead with his 15th win Monday night in Oakland, where he'll try to keep the A's from clinching the best July in franchise history in the opener of this key three-game set.
Monday marks exactly three months since Evan Longoria last played, and though the third baseman is rehabbing in Triple-A Durham, his return can't come soon enough for a Tampa Bay club that's been held to three or fewer runs in seven of its last eight games.
The Rays (53-49), however, have won three of those seven thanks to a pitching staff that's been brilliant of late. Tampa Bay has given up just 18 runs over its last 10 games, and finished a three-game set in Anaheim with back-to-back shutouts to pull within two games of the Angels for the second wild-card spot.
Oakland is one-half game ahead of Los Angeles.
"They're picking us up right now," Rays shortstop Elliot Johnson said of the pitching staff. "... Eventually we will pick them back up. But that's kind of how the team is built and I think everybody understands that."
The Rays have never gone three straight games without allowing a run, but Price (14-4, 2.57 ERA) figures to give them a solid chance. The left-hander won his third start in a row and sixth consecutive decision Wednesday after striking out 10 over seven innings in a 10-1 victory at Baltimore.
"At the end of the day, it's always about starting pitching," manager Joe Maddon told the team's official website. "I thought David was really sharp tonight."
Price is 7-0 with a 1.61 ERA in his last nine starts against AL opponents, and he certainly had everything going in his last matchup with the A's (55-46). The three-time All-Star fanned a season-high 12 and allowed one run over eight innings in a 7-2 home victory May 4.
The lineup Price will see Monday should have a bit more confidence than the one he shut down three months ago, however. The A's were averaging an AL-low 3.11 runs after that contest, but they've put up a major-league high 6.07 since the All-Star break.
Center fielder Yoenis Cespedes, who was hitting .230 (14 for 61) versus left-handers before the break, is batting .440 (11 for 25) since.
"They have the best starting pitching in the American League and their bullpen is one of the best, as well," Price said. "They throw well, play good defense, and they've got some guys who are stepping up in that lineup right now."
The A's are 18-4 this month after taking two of three in both Toronto and Baltimore, and are just one win shy of clinching the best July in franchise history.
"The way we've been playing, it looks like we've got a chance to win every game," manager Bob Melvin said after Sunday's 6-1 loss to the Orioles. "But boy, any time during the season you can go on the road and take four out of six from two very good teams, we'll take it."
Price has gone exactly seven innings in six of his last seven starts - he went 7 1-3 in the other - and his mound opponent has also been a model of consistency. A.J. Griffin (3-0, 2.25) has gone six in all six of his major league outings, with his three-hit, nine-strikeout performance in Wednesday's 16-0 blasting of the Blue Jays his best yet.
"He mixed his pitches, he did everything as if it was a close game, and that's what you want to see,' Melvin said.
Oakland's Coco Crisp, who's hitting .342 in July, missed Sunday's game with a tight hamstring and will be re-evaluated Monday.
The Associated Press News Service
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