Rays contend for AL East in final week

Rays contend for AL East in final week

ST. PETERSBURG -- Entering the final week of the season, the Rays have the luxury of having earned, at the very least, a Wild Card spot in the postseason.

How the Rays fare in the final two road trips at Baltimore and Detroit will determine if they will head into October as champions of the American League East.

"Winning the division is what we've been shooting for all year," Scott Kazmir said. "Like what we said at the All-Star break, we don't want to settle for less. Anything else will be a little bit disappointing, but at the same time, we just want to play in October."

After a 4-1 loss to the Twins on Sunday -- and Boston's win over Toronto -- the Rays' lead atop the American League East slipped to 1 1/2 games, and their magic number to clinch the division remained at six. That means any combination of Rays wins and Red Sox losses totaling six games will give the Rays their first division championship.

Monday night in Baltimore, the Rays will continue their quest to win the division by rolling out top prospect David Price, who will make his first Major League start in the opening game of the four-game series against the Orioles.

"He's champing at the bit," manager Joe Maddon said. "He wants me to know he's there, he wants me to know he's good [to throw], and I like it. So we will give him the start [Monday]."

Price will take the rotation turn of right-hander Matt Garza, who pitched Wednesday night's game on shortened rest.

The 23-year-old Price made his Major League debut in an extended relief stint Sunday against the Yankees, and he pitched again in relief on Thursday against the Twins. Price, who was the top pick in 2007's First-Year Player Draft, has pitched six innings out of the bullpen, allowing two runs on four hits while posting a 3.00 ERA.

Among the challenges of the coming week is Tuesday night's twi-night doubleheader. James Shields was flip-flopped in the rotation with Garza after the Rays' recently completed series at Yankee Stadium. In theory, having Shields pitch the first game of the double-dip will help save the bullpen. The idea being Shields finds a way to give the team seven innings, even if he doesn't have his best stuff.

Rays pitching probables
vs. Orioles, 7:05 p.m. ET
David Price (0-0, 3.00) vs. Brian Bass (3-4, 5.15)
vs. Orioles, 5:05 p.m. ET
Game 1: James Shields (13-8, 3.61) vs. TBA
Game 2: Mitch Talbot (0-0, 12.00) vs. Garrett Olson (9-9, 6.75)
vs. Orioles, 7:05 p.m. ET
Edwin Jackson (12-11, 4.19) vs. Radhames Liz (6-6, 6.69)
vs. Tigers, 1:05 p.m. ET
Scott Kazmir (12-7, 3.36) vs. Justin Verlander (10-17, 4.87)
vs. Tigers, 7:05 p.m. ET
Andy Sonnanstine (13-8, 4.27) vs. Dontrelle Willis (0-2, 10.61)
vs. Tigers, 7:05 p.m. ET
Matt Garza (11-9, 3.66) vs. Zach Miner (8-4, 4.16)
vs. Tigers, 1:05 p.m. ET
James Shields (13-8, 3.61) vs. Freddy Garcia (1-0, 0.00)

Rookie Mitch Talbot will also be making his first Major League start in the Orioles series when he starts the second game on Tuesday. Talbot made his Major League debut in relief of Kazmir last Monday, when he pitched three innings and allowed four runs.

Edwin Jackson will start the finale against Baltimore on Wednesday, which will present yet another challenge for the team due to the brief recovery period between Wednesday night's game in Baltimore (7:05 p.m. ET start) and Thursday afternoon's game in Detroit that begins at 1:05 p.m. ET.

Kazmir will start the opener of the four-game series in Detroit and will be followed by Andy Sonnanstine, Garza and Shields.

On a positive note, the Rays hold an 11-3 advantage over the Orioles this season, and they swept the Tigers in a three-game series in their only meeting of the season.

Winning the division would assure the Rays of playing at home to start the American League Division Series, and their opponent would be either the White Sox or Twins. If they do not win the division, the Rays would head to Anaheim as the Wild Card winner to play the Angels.

Even if the Rays manage to clinch the division title early, don't look for them to begin resting players until everything is settled, like home-field advantage. The Rays have the best home record in baseball, so playing as many times as possible under the roof at Tropicana Field is a much-desired scenario.

Currently, the Angels have the best record in the American League, so, in addition to trying to win their division, the Rays will have an even larger task in trying to overcome the Angels.

"Winning the division is real important," Shields said. "Home-field advantage is huge and it would be huge mentally for us to have it. I think regardless of where we play, if we have more games at home it's a big advantage for us.

"It's better for any team at home this year. No team is doing well on the road except the Angels. And they came in here and didn't do that well against us. So I definitely think home-field advantage is big, so you want to win the division and have the best record."

Added Kazmir: "I think it would be a huge advantage to us heading into the playoffs, knowing everybody had to come to Tropicana Field, you know. That's just what's been on our minds. That's what's been driving us this whole time. Hopefully we can pull this out."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.