Rays-Marlins rivalry matters now
Tampa Bay (38-28) vs. Florida (36-30), Friday, 7:10 p.m. ET
Never has the future of baseball in the Sunshine State looked as bright as this season.
For only the second time in 11 years, both the Rays and the Marlins enter Friday's Interleague series above .500, and in division contention of their respective leagues.
Following Thursday's off-day, the Rays will welcome the Marlins to Tropicana Field with every intention set on righting a 12-14 home record against Florida.
"We don't really play them that much; we only play them two series," Carl Crawford mused. "We've never been in first place and this is the first time where we'll be almost in first. They're doing well, so it will really mean something."
In past seasons, an all-Florida matchup drew little interest outside the two local markets. But with two of the Major's youngest, talent-laden teams squaring off, the series could begin to heat up.
"Everybody always measures a team based on how much money they spend, but you have two exciting young ball clubs with exciting players on it," Florida's Luis Gonzalez said. "And both teams are playing well, so it should be a fun series for both teams."
"Everybody wants to make it into [a rivalry]," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "They've been better than we have in the past. They've already run their flag up. As we get better, I think at some point, where both teams are playing at a high level, I think you can grow it into one of those."
Marlins outfielder Jeremy Hermida is not surprised at the early-season success of either team.
"We have a lot of talent this year, and they have a lot of talent, as well," he said. "Both teams have a lot of talent, and we just have to put it together on the field."
Although it is hardly justifiable to cement either squad as a perennial threat, both teams have showcased a resiliency that has silenced many skeptics.
After dropping three of a four-game set to Atlanta last week, the Marlins bounced back with a series win vs. Reds. Similarly, the Rays followed an ugly three-game sweep in Boston by taking two of the next three games against Texas.
"My gosh, they're playing great," Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes said of the Marlins. "Jorge Cantu coming back, Mark Hendrickson coming back, and they've got some great players over there. Should be a pretty good series."
Gomes, who will be eligible to play after serving the finale game of a five-game suspension Wednesday, had some kind words for the former Rays, Cantu, in particular.
"Sometimes a new team, a new fit can turn it around," Gomes said of the red-hot Marlins infielder. "The guys always had tools. ... He's already done it in the show."
While the Marlins have enjoyed runs into the postseason, the Rays are in virtually uncharted waters with their record.
But continuing to add to that mark will become even tougher in the next few weeks. Friday's game opens a nine-game Interleague homestand for the Rays, who will follow the Marlins with the Cubs and the Astros. Those three teams entered Wednesday a combined 24 games over .500.
Aiding the Rays cause -- along with Gomes -- will be closer Troy Percival, who is set to return from a strained left hamstring and come off the 15-day disabled list Friday.
Unfortunately, those gains will be offset by the loss of Carl Crawford, who will start his four-game suspension on Friday for his involvement in the Red Sox-Rays fracas last week.
Interleague by the numbers: 75-106 overall, 1-2 in 2008
Record vs. Marlins : 21-34
All-time Rays Interleague Play Leaders:
Batting average: Fred McGriff .328
Home runs: Fred McGriff, 18
RBIs: Fred McGriff, 56
Wins: Victor Zambrano, 10
ERA (minimum 50 innings pitched): Victor Zambrano, 2.69
2008 Interleague Schedule
May 16 at Cardinals: Won, 3-1
May 17 at Cardinals: Lost, 9-8
May 18 at Cardinals: Lost, 5-4
Friday-Sunday vs. Marlins
June 17-19 vs. Cubs
June 20-22 vs. Astos
June 23-25 at Marlins
TB: RHP Andy Sonnanstine (6-3, 4.88 ERA)
Sonnanstine got a no-decision Saturday night in Texas after allowing two runs on six hits in five innings. The right-hander is a master of deception, employing an array of pitches that he can throw from all different angles. But he has learned to primarily use his fastball to set up the other pitches. Sonnanstine is 1-0 with a 2.57 ERA in one career start against the Marlins. His last win came May 16 at St. Louis. FLA: RHP Ryan Tucker (1-0, 1.80 ERA)
After dominating Double-A Carolina all year, the Marlins finally decided to give Tucker a chance in the Major Leagues. He didn't let them down. Making his big league debut against the Reds on Sunday, Tucker went five innings while giving up just one run on two hits and striking out six in the Marlins' win. His fastball was in the low- to mid-90s for most of the afternoon, topping out at 95 mph twice. Tucker had posted a 4-2 record with the Mudcats and a Southern League-leading 1.41 ERA. Tidbits
ESPN has picked up the Rays game on June 18 against the Cubs. ... Left-hander Scott Kazmir retired the first 14 batters he faced on Wednesday afternoon, then gave up a solo home to Gary Matthews Jr. in the fifth inning. ... Designated hitter Cliff Floyd has been out of the lineup for five straight games, as Maddon has been elected to go with the club's "hot bats." ... Sonnanstine notched his first Major League win vs. the Marlins, on June 10, 2007. The right-hander recorded a career-high 10 strikeouts in the victory. Tickets
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Saturday: Rays (Matt Garza, 4-3, 4.38) vs. Marlins (Mark Hendrickson, 7-4, 5.76), 6:10 p.m. ET
Sunday: Rays (Edwin Jackson, 4-5, 4.06) vs. Marlins (Ricky Nolasco, 6-4, 4.63), 1:40 p.m. ET
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.