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Tampa Bay Rays must improve play at home heading into difficult stretch

Evan Longoria knows the Rays have a tough challenge ahead, and it begins with hitting and playing better at the Trop.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Evan Longoria knows the Rays have a tough challenge ahead, and it begins with hitting and playing better at the Trop.

Evan Longoria is only 24 and hasn't finished his second full season in the majors, but he often speaks with the perspective of a veteran.

After the Rays had to battle to win two of three from the worst-in-baseball Orioles, he acknowledged the challenge ahead would take "a lot more grit and a lot more grind than I think we realize."

Longoria went on to refer to the importance of "these stretch games," only to correct himself since it was still only July.

But he was right the first time.

Though the Rays have a distinct scheduling advantage over their AL East foes at the end of the season — their final 10 games are against the Mariners, Orioles and Royals, while the Yankees and Red Sox play each other six times — they have to play with more urgency now.

After what was supposed to be two "easy" series at Baltimore and Cleveland, consider the stretch the Rays start Monday: Fourteen of their next 17 games against legit playoff contenders, the Tigers (7), Yankees (3) and Twins (4). Looking more broadly, 49 of their next 55 games — before that supposed soft ending — are against teams that as of Saturday morning were .500 or better.

The first thing the Rays have to do is start playing better at Tropicana Field.

For all the positive stats the Rays have compiled, including, through Friday, a majors-best 31-18 road record and a plus-110 run differential that is second only to the Yankees, they have been, at best, mediocre at home, with a 26-20 record.

The onus is on the offense. Despite similar home-road numbers in the basic stat categories, the difference in the bottom line is of historical significance — an average of 1¼ runs more per game on the road (5.73-4.48). Since the 1969 start of division play, according to Stats Inc., only two AL teams have averaged 1½ more runs on the road — the 1973 A's and 1994 Yankees.

The 11-game homestand that starts Monday is the Rays' longest since 2005. And arguably their most important ever.

Tampa Bay Rays must improve play at home heading into difficult stretch 07/24/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 24, 2010 6:58pm]
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