Rays welcome Yankees for two

Rays welcome Yankees for two

ST. PETERSBURG -- Peaks and valleys. That's the term Jonny Gomes used when discussing the 162-game Major League season on Friday. Fresh off the club's first victory in five games, Gomes said on Friday morning that the key to the Rays' success would be riding out the highs and minimizing the lows.

Taking three of the past four games and notching a series win against the top team in the American League East is definitely a peak.

Getting an exceptional debut from Jeff Niemann? Another positive mark.

In fact, the 25-year-old rookie invoked the same expression in his postgame news conference on Sunday.

"Peaks and valleys, man. Peaks and valleys," Niemann said.

Going into a two-game set against the Yankees, the Rays all appear to be on the same page.

"We've been catching the ball," manager Joe Maddon said. "The pitching has been better than last year, especially the bullpen. We just have to get some more guys hot. ... Overall, I'm very pleased; I like the nightly intensity."

One of the pitchers who has improved markedly is Andy Sonnanstine. The righty earned the No. 3 rotation spot after a solid spring, and has followed it up with two equally productive starts. Last year, Sonnanstine was 6-10 with a 5.85 ERA, a mark the Rays are confident the 25-year-old will only improve upon.

Sonnanstine will get the ball on Monday night for his home debut against a familiar lineup. The righty squared off against the Yankees just 10 days ago, when he also faced Yankees scheduled starter Ian Kennedy. Although he is 2-6 in 11 games at Tropicana Field, Sonnanstine has fared well against New York, winning his past two starts and posting a 3.98 ERA.

The Rays split a four-game series with the Yankees in New York last weekend, taking the first two games by a combined 19-7 score, before dropping the ensuing two games.

Besides a solid mound performance from Sonnanstine, the club desperately needs to generate runs. In their two losses to the Yankees last week, the Rays scored just one run and seven hits. In Sunday's 6-2 win over Baltimore, Tampa Bay scored all of its runs in the fifth inning, surrounding its offensive outburst with puzzling dry spells.

Despite the widely-publicized incident between the two teams in Spring Training, Carl Crawford said he doesn't aim to carry anything extra into the game.

"I'm going to approach it as a normal game," Crawford said. "[It'll be] business as usual."

Crawford, who notched the 1,000th hit of his career on Friday, said extra adrenaline often has an adverse effect at the plate, as it causes him to lose focus.

The Rays were anything but unfocused in their last shot at Kennedy. The righty, one of the trio of highly-touted young pitchers who are expected to anchor the Yankees' rotation for years to come, struggled in his last outing, throwing just 32 of his 70 pitches for strikes. The Rays took advantage of the youngster's lack of command and tagged him for six runs in a mere 2 1/3 innings.

"We've been playing well," Maddon said. "Sometimes when you play well, you lose. ... We're .500 and have played some pretty good teams."

Now it's just a question of the Rays staying atop their peak.

Pitching matchup
TB: RHP Andy Sonnanstine (1-1, 6.00 ERA)
Sonnanstine is 2-1 with a 3.98 ERA against the Yankees in his career.

NYY: RHP Ian Kennedy (0-1, 13.50 ERA)
Kennedy is 1-1 lifetime vs. Tampa Bay with a 6.75 ERA.

Tidbits
Niemann became the seventh Ray to win his Major League debut, and the first since Scott Kazmir more than three years ago. At 6-foot-9, Niemann is also the tallest pitcher in Rays history. ... Kurt Birkins, who has been sidelined with neuritis in his left elbow, will pitch in an extended Spring Training game on Tuesday. The lefty will join Kazmir on the rehab assignment and pitch several innings. ... With a successful steal of third base on Sunday, Crawford now has a team-leading four steals on the season. ... The Rays are optimistic about Matt Garza's progress, and Maddon said that his return date is now looking to be a more positive two to four weeks. Garza has been sidelined since April 8 with radial nerve irritation in his right arm and is currently on the 15-day disabled list.

Tickets
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On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• FSN

On radio
• WHNZ 1250, WGES 680 (Español)

Up next
• Tuesday: Rays (Edwin Jackson, 2-0, 0.64) vs. Yankees (Andy Pettitte, 1-1, 3.09), 7:10 p.m. ET
• Wednesday: Rays (James Shields, 1-1, 3.00) at Twins (Livan Hernandez, 3-0, 2.57), 8:10 p.m. ET
• Thursday: Rays (Jason Hammel, 0-1, 4.15) at Twins (Boof Bonser, 1-2, 2.84), 8:10 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.