ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have taken care of business against their familiar foes in the AL East so far, winning 12 of their first 16 games against division opponents.
But with the A's and Royals coming to Tropicana Field this week, Tampa Bay will have to find a way to beat teams it doesn't see often. Though Oakland finished last in the AL West last season (75-87), it went 6-4 against the Rays, who struggled against the West (12-21).
"It's just tough playing teams you don't play often," manager Joe Maddon said. "We're big on prep work, and we play our division so many times (that) when you bring (in) these west-side teams, it's a little more difficult."
While the A's strength continues to be pitching, led by four-time All-Star Ben Sheets (whom only one Ray — Pat Burrell — has faced), Maddon has noticed some subtle differences in them from previous seasons. The Rays will face the A's nine times this season, five in the next two weeks.
"I think they've become more baserunning proficient and are taking more chances on the bases, as opposed to being the station-to-station team they've been in the past," Maddon said. "I know (OF Ryan) Sweeney's a good player in the middle of the lineup. But I think they're primarily built on their pitching, both starters and relievers. You have to outpitch them to beat them."
WADING IN: RHP Wade Davis, who is coming off his best outing of the season, said he's starting to find his rhythm and release point on the mound and hopes that'll translate into more success.
After a rough first outing (a 10-0 loss to the Yankees), Davis has given up just four hits and one earned run over 11 combined innings in his past two starts.
"In spring training and the first part of the year, sometimes you come out good, sometimes not," he said. "You're trying to find that nice and easy point, and I'm starting to get to that now. Just playing catch, everything is starting to come out easy."
STEP BACK: Though the Rays are off to a hot start, Monday's off day was a welcomed respite, with Maddon saying he suggests players take a quick break from the game. "I love it when you turn it off, if your family is in town, hang with the family," Maddon said. "If not, just do something very relaxing, don't even think about it. Come out (today), we'll have a little extra work before our day begins and get back to business."
MINOR MATTERS: Durham RHP Aneury Rodriguez earned International League pitcher of the week honors. Rodriguez, 22, acquired from the Rockies in the trade for RHP Jason Hammel, has allowed just five hits and three walks in two starts (14 innings) for the Bulls. Rodriguez joins RHP Jeremy Hellickson (April 12-18) in making Durham the first team in the league to win multiple weekly awards this season. … RHP Virgil Vasquez, who is 2-0 in three starts for the Bulls, is out with two fractured wrists suffered in a recent car accident.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.