Two consecutive sweeps over American League East opponents have put the Rays in the driver's seat in the AL Wild Card race. Now one more series against a division opponent is all that stands between them and the postseason.
The Rays open a three-game set against the Blue Jays on Friday night at Rogers Centre carrying a one-game lead over the Indians for the top Wild Card spot and a two-game edge over the Rangers for the second berth. Tampa Bay comes in having won seven straight after blanking both the Orioles and Yankees, and can clinch a Wild Card berth with a victory over the Blue Jays on Friday, coupled with a Rangers loss to the Angels.
To continue that run, the Rays could use a rebound performance from Jeremy Hellickson (12-9, 5.16 ERA). The right-hander owns a 7.75 ERA over his past nine starts, averaging 4 1/3 innings per outing while surrendering a .338 average and eight homers. The Rangers touched him up for five runs in only 2 2/3 innings in his last start, on Sept. 17.
"I haven't been throwing like I'm capable of throwing," Hellickson said. "So I'm glad they're still running me out there. I haven't been able to make the big pitch when I've needed to, and it's cost me."
Hellickson did make an important contribution to the Rays' playoff push last Friday -- or technically, early Saturday morning -- when he tossed 2 1/3 scoreless innings to pick up the win in Tampa Bay's 18-inning triumph over the Orioles. He gave up one hit and struck out two.
Meanwhile, R.A. Dickey (13-13, 4.27) is set to close out a disappointing first season in Toronto. Last year's National League Cy Young Award winner hasn't exactly flourished in his new home, posting a 4.95 ERA and serving up 21 home runs in 17 starts at Rogers Centre. His 33 homers overall put him second in the Majors, and also in Blue Jays history, behind only Woody Williams' 36 in 1998.
The long ball plagued Dickey again last Sunday at Fenway Park. He tossed an eight-inning complete game, giving up six hits and one walk while striking out a season-high 11. But two homers helped the Red Sox plate five and win the game.
"I threw maybe two or three that I really regret and two of them got hit out," Dickey said. "It was a really bizarre way to lose a baseball game. I had a good knuckleball, I've had a good knuckleball for quite some time and I expected better from what I felt and what I saw the ball doing."
On the other hand, Dickey has done just fine against the Rays. In five starts, he has a 3.00 ERA and a .189 opponents' average.
Rays: Still no debut for Crain
Jesse Crain warmed up during Monday's game against the Orioles but never came in from the bullpen, and the right-hander still is looking to throw his first pitch in a Rays uniform. Crain, acquired from the White Sox on July 29, has been unavailable since Monday, as he continues to have some issues with the shoulder that had put him on the 60-day disabled list.
"It's just been kind of a day-to-day thing," manager Joe Maddon said. "Some days he's felt a little better than others, but nothing's been horrid. It's just not quite there yet."
• Center fielder Desmond Jennings missed his fourth consecutive start on Thursday with a strained left hamstring.
Blue Jays: Langerhans bolsters depth
Toronto purchased the contract of Ryan Langerhans from Triple-A Buffalo on Thursday and started him at first base in their series finale at Baltimore. Langerhans, who played for Buffalo earlier this season, had just finished a stint with the independent Sugarland Skeeters, making him more game-ready than some of the Blue Jays' other options.
The club needed an extra player with outfielder Rajai Davis leaving to attend the birth of his first child and first baseman Adam Lind battling a sore back. Langerhans has been primarily an outfielder over 10 big league seasons, but he stepped in for Lind on Thursday and went 0-for-4.
Lind was optimistic that he will return to the lineup on Friday or Saturday.
• Outfielder Moises Sierra returned on Thursday after missing one game with a sprained ankle. He went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.
• The Blue Jays are 2-5 so far on their seven-game road trip.
• Hellickson has a 2.90 ERA in five starts against Toronto this season, including a 2.77 mark in two games at Rogers Centre.