CHICAGO — The Rays weathered treacherous conditions and difficult opponents to complete the most successful road trip in franchise history and return home as the best team in baseball.
Now they face what might be a bigger challenge: getting their fans to fill up Tropicana Field.
There are giveaways tonight (Evan Longoria T-shirt) and Sunday (Zorilla Gorilla Webkinz, for Ben Zobrist), and there's a John Fogerty concert Saturday. But apparently there has not been much of an advance sale for the weekend, with the Rays saying only that tickets remain available in all price categories.
"We've been in first place, we're winning, you'd think it'd be a nice crowd," LF Carl Crawford said. "You hope. We want to come back to a nice crowd just to keep the energy level up. Everybody's looking forward to coming back home to play, so I hope the fans feel like we do and want to come out and cheer for us."
"We do like having support," RHP Matt Garza said. "It's a lot funner playing in front of people than it is in front of empty seats."
The weekend series launches a nine-game homestand featuring the Blue Jays, A's and Royals (including a May 1 ZZ Top concert), none of which is drawing well. The Rays averaged 27,125 for their first six home games, though that included the soldout opener and three against the Yankees.
"It's been an incredible start to the season. We now begin an important nine-game homestand featuring exciting promotions and concerts," team president Matt Silverman said. "It would be nice to see good-sized crowds turning out at the ballpark."
TO THE MATT: All Garza has done so far is post the best record (3-0) and ERA (0.75) in the AL.
And all he wants to do when he starts tonight is keep doing the same thing.
"I'm just trying to stick with what's working and don't change anything," he said. "We ain't fixing what's not broken. I'm just going to keep going, make small adjustments here and there, and keep attacking."
Garza's primary concern has been his walks, and he's still not pleased, having allowed seven in 24 innings, with 19 strikeouts.
Manager Joe Maddon said the biggest difference he has noticed is Garza's improved demeanor: "Just much less emotional on the mound. … He comes in after the inning is over, and not a whole lot bad has happened when he's pitched, but if something has gone awry, he comes in, he's fine. I just think he's controlling his emotions better."
MEDICAL MATTERS: OF Matt Joyce (strained right elbow) went to Birmingham, Ala., to be checked by noted surgeon James Andrews and came back with a recommendation for rest and continued rehab.
"All I heard is that it's a very mild strain compared to what it had been, but they wanted to take the activity away just to make sure that it eventually comes back to the point where we feel good about him moving forward soon," Maddon said. "It wasn't an awful report by any means."
MISCELLANY: Through 16 games, Rays starters have a major-league best 2.67 ERA. … 2B Sean Rodriguez's right hand, stepped on by White Sox 1B Paul Konerko on Wednesday, was scarred and still swollen Thursday. … Garza flew home Thursday afternoon since the team wasn't expected to arrive until around 4 a.m. … Because of the late arrival, the Rays will have "optional" batting practice. … INF Willy Aybar became the father of a son and will rejoin the team tonight. … LHP Jake McGee left his Wednesday start at Double-A Montgomery with a left knee strain and is day to day. … Triple-A Durham has won seven straight.