ST. PETERSBURG — The Indians seem like a good group of guys. Hard-working manager, handful of stars, a bunch of nice little players.
There's just something that turns them from a last-place team against everyone else to a first-place team against the Rays.
Monday was the fifth time they played this season, and the Indians have won all five, this time 5-2.
It was the Indians who caused much of the Rays' problems before the All-Star break in sweeping a four-game series. And it was the Indians who halted the Rays' latest run, ending their five-game winning streak on Monday, though Tampa Bay retained a three-game lead in the American League East with Boston's loss.
"They're a big-league team, too," catcher Dioner Navarro said. "They can play, too. We just haven't been as good against them."
To find a reason why the Indians (44-62 against all others) have done so well, outscoring the Rays 36-10, it makes sense to start with the starters. The Indians used three lefties in Cleveland and started All-Star lefty Cliff Lee on Monday, with another slated for Wednesday, taking advantage of the Rays' weakness (18-16 vs. lefties). Plus, they make heavy use of lefty reliever Rafael Perez (6½ scoreless innings vs. the Rays).
"Their pitching matches up well with our offense, and we don't match up well with their pitching,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "That's where they've gotten us. That's why you see the bad record."
The Rays (64-45) weren't in a very good position to start, with two of their key players out of the lineup — leftfielder Carl Crawford with a sore left hamstring (replaced by Eric Hinske) and shortstop Jason Bartlett with a bruised right index finger (replaced by Willy Aybar, who later had leg cramps). And three relievers were on Maddon's do-not-call list, Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell and Troy Percival.
Lee said he didn't have his "best stuff,'' but he was tough enough over seven innings, winning his major-league high-matching 15th game. And the Rays didn't help themselves, getting just one extra-base hit, going 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position and leaving on nine, including the first two in the first, three in the second and two more in the seventh.
Rays starter Matt Garza was coming off a stellar start but wasn't as sharp, or as composed. Fastball command was the issue as he threw only seven of 22 first-pitch strikes.
He allowed runners in four of his five innings and was done in by two homers, a solo shot by No. 9 hitter Asdrubal Cabrera on a 2-and-2 pitch in the third and a two-out, two-run shot by Dave Dellucci in the fifth.
"Those are telltale signs kind of that he just wasn't right," Maddon said. "That shouldn't happen. When he's on he's not going to leave that changeup up there to Dellucci and he's not going to permit Cabrera to hit a two-strike homer against him, and pull it on top of that."
Garza pitched well against the Indians when he was with Minnesota but has struggled both times this season.
"I don't know if it was that I underestimated them because of their record or whatever," Garza said. "I know who I was going against. They still have a potent lineup."
Almost unstoppable it seems.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.