While the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees continue to tangle for American League East supremacy, the division’s second tier begins a four-game series Friday night in Toronto. The Blue Jays come into the series having dropped two of three games to the Kansas City Royals. The Tampa Bay Rays enter the weekend set fresh off losing three of four to the Detroit Tigers.
TV: 7:07 p.m. ET, SUN (Tampa Bay), Rogers Sportsnet (Toronto)
PITCHING MATCHUP: Rays RH James Shields (11-10, 3.05 ERA) vs. Blue Jays RH Henderson Alvarez (0-1, 4.32 ERA)
A meeting with the Blue Jays provided the perfect rebound for Shields earlier this month. In his first start after allowing 10 runs in a loss to Oakland, the 29-year-old limited Toronto to a run on three hits over 7 1/3 dominant innings. Shields is 8-5 with a 3.80 ERA in 17 career starts against the Blue Jays. That includes a 2-0 mark so far in 2011.
Alvarez will be making his fourth career major-league start, and showed plenty of improvement in his previous outing. The 21-year-old allowed two runs - one earned - through six innings but was denied his first win in the majors as the Blue Jays went on to drop a 5-1 decision. His control has been solid, but opponents are hitting a robust .300 against him so far.
ABOUT THE RAYS (70-59): What slim chance the Rays had of making a run at a playoff spot became even more minuscule following their dismal showing against the Tigers. The offense managed precious little in the four-game set, scoring just six times to overshadow a solid effort from the pitching staff. Third baseman Evan Longoria was the lone bright spot in the series for Tampa Bay, going deep twice to equal his home-run total from all of last season - in 200 fewer at-bats, no less. While the batting average remains well below his lofty standards - he’s hitting just .236 for the season - Longoria’s run-producing prowess has been solid, with 11 home runs and 32 RBIs in 39 second-half games.
ABOUT THE BLUE JAYS (66-64): Toronto fans saw the good and the bad from their rookie catcher in Thursday’s 9-6 loss to the Royals. J.P. Arencibia belted his 20th home run of the season to tie John Buck for the most ever hit by a Toronto backstop in a season. His fielding was another story altogether, as he dropped a routine pop fly off the bat of Mike Moustakas late in the game after failing to secure the ball with both hands. Moustakas was given new life at the plate, and promptly ripped a run-scoring double that extended the lead at the time to 8-4. While the Blue Jays welcome Arencibia’s power stroke, his questionable fielding and .213 average leave much to be desired.
FINAL PITCH: The Blue Jays have rocked Shields for 13 home runs in just 157 at-bats - five of which have come from first baseman Adam Lind.