ST. PETERSBURG — More than one-third the way through their thus-far amazing season, two of the Rays most distinguishing characteristics are a 22-8 road record that is surprisingly, if not shockingly, the best in the majors and an equally unexpected 15-12 home mark that is one of the most pedestrian.
"We have to play better at home also, there's no doubt," manager Joe Maddon said. "That should be our staple, that we play well at the Trop, and I'm really anticipating that we will."
The Rays have been saying that for a while, now they have to show they can do it, and the timing may be good:
Of their 31 games remaining before the mid July All-Star break, 19 are at home and, after the three-game series with Toronto that starts tonight, 10 of the remaining 16 are against teams with losing records, the Marlins, D'backs and Indians. The other six are vs. the Padres and Red Sox.
Over the 2008-09 seasons, the Rays had the second best home record in the majors at 109-53, .673, which makes this season's .556 mark harder to explain. Only nine teams have fewer home wins than the Rays.
"We need to get going at home," said RHP Jeff Niemann, who starts tonight. "It would be great to come out with a win in that first game and get us off to a good start."
MAN ON THE HILL: After making nine consecutive quality starts, Niemann had a rough outing his last time out in Toronto. And as he prepares to face the Jays again tonight, his biggest challenge is resisting the urge to do things any differently.
"That's probably the hardest thing to do to not change when things just don't go your way," Niemann said. "Last game out I felt like I threw the ball pretty well and ended up giving up five runs.
"You kind of want to look back and see what do we need to do differently, and it was just that things went their way that day. And you just have to go out there and do the same things and attack them and hope you get the bounces."
Niemann came out with his unblemished record intact at 5-0 when the Rays came back in the ninth to win. He will try again tonight to match RHP James Shields as the only Rays starters to begin a season 6-0.
LEADING MAN: John Jaso, the rookie lefty-swinger, is likely to stay atop the lineup against right-handed starters for a while. Maddon said he'd think more Monday and today about who to use against lefties, with B.J. Upton — who was on base five times Sunday — the leading candidate.
It's particularly relevant this week as the Rays face what Maddon jokingly considers three Jays lefties — Brian Tallet and Brett Cecil, who actually throw left-handed, and righty Shaun Marcum, who gets out lefty hitters as if he does too.
STARRY-EYED: With about three weeks remaining for voting 3B Evan Longoria and LF Carl Crawford are in position to be elected AL starters for the July 13 All-Star Game.
Longoria is first at third with 1,403,566 votes, well ahead of the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez (956,419) and third most overall behind Twins C Joe Mauer (1,886,188) and Yankees SS Derek Jeter (1,554,781).
Crawford is third among outfielders with 806,202 votes, trailing Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki (918,730) and Texas' Nelson Cruz (809,902) while leading Texas' (and former Rays prospect) Josh Hamilton (697,993), New York's Nick Swisher (587,977) and Los Angeles' Torii Hunter (575,044).
Rays 1B Carlos Peña, 2B Ben Zobrist and SS Jason Bartlett are all distant fifths at their positions.