With Tampa Bay's pitching not living up to its typical standards during the club's early-season funk, the Rays' offense has recently come to the rescue and helped put the team on the verge of going above .500 for the first time since April 6.
As of April 16, the Rays were 4-9 and ranked last in the American League in runs scored (39 total, 3.0 per game), batting average (.204) and on-base percentage (.284). In its 23 games since, Tampa Bay has hit a blistering .282 as a team and scored 5.74 runs per game, while racking up a 14-9 record.
The Rays will look to keep the hits -- and wins -- coming Sunday when they go for the sweep of the visiting Padres. Tampa Bay scored six runs in the series opener and followed it up with an eight-spot Saturday to win its fourth straight game, matching a season-high.
"A lot of confidence in our boys right now," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "There's a lot of confidence in the dugout. You can feel that, when your team feels as though they can score runs or that they can come back. There's a lot of chirping going on."
San Diego will turn to left-hander Eric Stults in an attempt to silence that chirping and the Tampa Bay bats. Stults, opposed by Rays starter Roberto Hernandez, has pitched well since being claimed off waivers from the White Sox last May. He has tallied an 11-5 record to go along with a 3.40 ERA in 25 games (21 starts) with the Padres, and the club is 15-6 in those 21 starts.
This season, Stults is 3-2 with a 4.50 ERA and enters Sunday's series finale coming off back-to-back quality starts. The southpaw limited the Cubs to two runs over 6 2/3 innings while taking a no-decision May 2, then followed it up Tuesday by holding the Marlins to just one run over 6 1/3 frames -- in part because of a handful of solid defensive plays -- for the victory.
"I felt good," Stults said following his most recent trip to the mound. "I tried to use the Marlins' aggressiveness [against them]. I tried to keep them off-balance. But I can't say enough about our defense."
On Sunday, Stults will again need that type of defense behind him if the Padres are to slow the Majors' hottest offense and avoid a sweep.
Padres: Richard throws sim game, rehab start up next
Left-hander Clayton Richard, on the 15-day disabled list since Sunday with an intestinal virus, tossed a 40-pitch simulated game prior to Saturday's victory and will next make a rehab start for Triple-A Tucson on Thursday.
"It went well," Richard said of the simulated game. "I took it like a game day -- got here early and went about it like I was preparing for a start."
The southpaw went 0-3 with a 13.09 ERA in three starts while battling a virus earlier this season and sits at 0-4 with an 8.54 ERA in six starts overall.
Rays: Hernandez looks to build off last start
Hernandez will take the hill in Sunday's finale hoping to build off an encouraging outing his last time out and improve on his 1-4 start to the season.
The right-hander allowed just one run over six innings against the Blue Jays on Tuesday and left the game in line for the victory, though he ended up with a no-decision in a 6-4 loss. "Well," said Maddon, who was ejected in the second inning of that game, "I watched most of it on the TV -- high-def looks really good -- and the ball was sinking a lot. If he can bring that same sinker to bear [Sunday], he's going to pitch another good game."
• Padres outfielder Carlos Quentin is 3-for-9 with two home runs and five RBIs in his career against Hernandez.
• Sunday's game will mark Hernandez's first career start against the Padres and Stults' first career outing against the Rays.