Rays look to continue dominance at home in showdown against Sox

Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, received a $25 million facelift before the 2006 season. Cynics might call that investment the baseball equivalent of putting lipstick on a certain barnyard animal.

The Trop still lacks ambience, tradition and the creature comforts of most parks built in the last two decades. But the building's main tenants love it 71.6 percent of the time.

The Rays have a 53-21 home record this season -- best in the majors -- and now the little dome they call home beckons when the team needs a lift. The Rays begin a three-game series against Boston on Monday, then play four with Minnesota before concluding the season with an eight-game trip to Baltimore and Detroit.

The American League East title is at stake, so the Rays' marketing department is hauling out the heavy hitters. Tampa Bay Lightning coach, former ESPN analyst and mullet king Barry Melrose is throwing out the ceremonial first pitch Monday, while Wade Boggs and the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard will do the honors Wednesday.

Last week, the Rays ostensibly got over the hump by taking two straight at Fenway Park after an 0-7 start in Boston this season. That was supposed to be a huge emotional boost for a young team that's new to pennant race pressure. But after a 3-6 road trip, the Rays sport a slim one-game lead over Boston in the division.

Tampa's road trip had its high points. Dan Johnson and Carlos Pena hit huge home runs in Boston. David Price, the top pick in the 2007 draft, arrived from the minors and pitched 5 1/3 impressive innings in relief of Edwin Jackson on Sunday at Yankee Stadium. And Evan Longoria, still in the mix for AL Rookie of the Year despite missing a month with a broken wrist, returned with a two-hit game and a fine defensive play against New York on Saturday.

But the offense isn't giving the pitching staff much margin for error. The Rays hit .128 (11-for-86) with runners in scoring position on their trip, and injuries keep forcing manager Joe Maddon to fiddle with the lineup card. Center fielder B.J. Upton probably won't return from a quadriceps strain until mid-week, and Carl Crawford is out for the rest of the regular season with a finger injury.

The Rays have asked for and received an awful lot from Willy Aybar, Eric Hinske, Ben Zobrist, Gabe Gross et al, so Longoria should give the team a lift even if it takes him a while to kick off the rust.

"Sometimes a guy will come back and get right after it, or maybe there'll be a period where he regresses a bit because he has so much adrenalin flowing at the start," Maddon said by phone Sunday. "But when you see Evan at the plate and his quickness with the bat and the special things he can do, who knows? He's got this calmness about him and a joy for playing that I think all great players have."

The Rays will throw Scott Kazmir against Daisuke Matsuzaka in the series opener. It'll be Andy Sonnanstine versus Josh Beckett on Tuesday, and Matt Garza against Tim Wakefield in the series finale. Garza, who threw 83 pitches Saturday in New York, will go on three days rest against Boston.

While the Rays have become a national feel-good story, baseball fans on Florida's Gulf Coast have taken some hits for being slow to embrace the phenomenon. The Rays are 26th in the majors in attendance, having sold a little more than 1.5 million tickets -- and as anyone who's watched a Tampa Bay game on television knows, a healthy share of that total consists of itinerant Red Sox and Yankees fans.

Maddon sees the dynamic changing. During the team's weekend series in New York, he noticed more Rays T-shirts in the stands and around the hotel than he'd ever seen in the city. It's no longer embarrassing to wear the team's garb in public.

"A tipping point has occurred and it's starting to work in our favor," Maddon said. "We just have to do our part and continue to win."

You have to love any manager who pays homage to Malcolm Gladwell in assessing the allegiance of the hometown fans. But when Maddon wins the AL Manager of the Year award, it will be for coaxing the most out of a young, developing group. The Rays have 12 former first-round draft picks on their roster, but they're still awfully new to this winning business.

"I want the players to get used to it, and we want to build and make this an annual occurrence," Maddon said. "It's the right kind of feeling."

As of Sunday, seats were still available for the big showdown with Boston, but the Rays were urging fans to buy tickets ahead of time to avoid long lines. The Rays are 23-3 at home this season in front of crowds of 25,000 or more, and 18-1 when there are 30,000 people at the Trop, so the Tampa players clearly feed off the enthusiasm in the stands.

Disaster central

Nice weekend for the Brewers. They go to Philadelphia sporting a four-game lead in the National League wild-card race, and proceed to get outscored 26-10 and hit .169 (21-for-124) while dropping four straight.

The Brewers were outscored 11-2 in the first two innings, and received clunkers from starting pitchers Manny Parra and Jeff Suppan. It didn't help that the Milwaukee lineup showed a galling lack of patience against Phillies starter Brett Myers, forcing him to throw a mere 95 pitches over nine innings when he was working on three days' rest.

"It doesn't matter who's pitching against us," an exasperated Ryan Braun told reporters. "We're struggling in batting practice."

Manager Ned Yost, who's on the griddle, is trying to maintain an air of calm as he scrambles for solutions. In Sunday's doubleheader loss, Corey Hart made only his sixth and seventh appearances of the season in the leadoff spot, while Ray Durham hit in the No. 3 hole for the first time since coming over from San Francisco by trade.

Even when the Brewers get a lead, it's hard for Yost to trust his bullpen to maintain it. Eric Gagne is in a funk again, and David Riske has been unavailable because of a bone spur in his elbow.

When asked if the Milwaukee players are tight, a National League scout added a qualifier.

"I think that whole organization is tight right now," he said.

Fast finishers

If the National League MVP voters are going to excuse Carlos Delgado's poor start and give him consideration because of his strong finish, it'll be tough for them to exclude the Phillies' Ryan Howard from the conversation.

Howard leads the majors with 44 homers and 133 RBIs, and he has a .917 slugging percentage in September. Over the weekend, Howard became the first National League player to knock in 130 runs in three consecutive seasons since Sammy Sosa did it from 1998 through 2001.

The Phillies are also getting a monster contribution from Brett Myers, who is 7-2 with a 1.80 ERA since returning from a refresher course/wakeup call with the Triple A Lehigh Valley IronPigs.

After embracing the role of closer last season, Myers returned to the rotation with the arrival of Brad Lidge. He said he almost had to retrain himself to think as a starter.

"I needed to learn how to start [again], to throw my fastball more and locate it better and go from there," Myers said. "Before, I wasn't doing that. I had that closing mentality where I'd get strike one and try to strike guys out. I'd fall behind in counts and I wasn't setting hitters up. Now I'm trying to have some kind of plan for the second or third time I face guys."

Sunday, Myers became the first pitcher to throw a complete game on three days rest during the regular season since Andy Pettitte achieved the feat for the 2000 Yankees.

"I was hoping to get a guy back who would help us, but he's done much more than that," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said of Myers. "He's been fantastic. It's two completely different pitchers."

This and that

• The White Sox and Twins, separated by 1½ games in the American League Central, hit the road this week. Mark Buehrle (1-5 with a 6.58 ERA in seven career starts at Yankee Stadium) will take on rookie Alfredo Aceves in the opener of a four-game series in New York. Minnesota will send out Kevin Slowey against Cleveland rookie Scott Lewis. Slowey is 5-1 with a 2.27 ERA in his last seven starts.

Pedro Martinez, who hasn't pitched in a week, starts for the Mets against John Lannan on Monday night in Washington. Martinez is 20-8 with a 3.73 ERA in his career with at least six days' rest, and the Mets are 25-8 in Washington since the Nationals moved there from Montreal. Those numbers might provide a smidgen of comfort to Mets fans as they contemplate the possibility of another late charge by the Phillies.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.