Twins-Rays series looms large for both

Twins-Rays series looms large for both

CLEVELAND -- The Twins have been accustomed to playing meaningful baseball in late September, having made the postseason in four of the last six seasons.

For this year's biggest surprise team -- the Rays -- well, that hasn't quite been the case.

Tampa Bay had nine-last place finishes in its first 10 years as a franchise and was seeking its first winning season heading into this season.

But when the Twins and Rays meet on Thursday for the start of a four-game series at Tropicana Field, a lot will be on the line for both teams.

The Rays are currently attempting to become the first team since the 1991 Braves to go to the postseason one year after recording the worst record in the Majors. That's virtually assured, considering the club's magic number for a postseason berth is three. Tampa Bay also currently sits atop the American League East in sole possession of first place by two games following a huge series victory over the second-place Red Sox at home this week.

"We have to go down and play one of the hottest teams in the game right now," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "That's another big challenge for this ballclub on the road."

While the Rays are coming into the series with plenty of momentum, the Twins are limping in. Currently mired in a four-game losing streak that included a three-game sweep in Cleveland, Minnesota has been having trouble getting things to go its way.

Yet the Twins still enter the series only 2 1/2 games back of the White Sox in the AL Central with 10 games to play.

This four-game series with Tampa Bay will be Minnesota's last chance to try and gain ground before it faces Chicago for a three-game set. The hope of the Twins is that they will still be within striking distance of the White Sox when that series starts on Tuesday.

So the question becomes: Can Minnesota take advantage of this series in St. Petersburg?

The last time the two teams faced each other came April 16-17. They split that two-game series.

These two teams certainly have a lot in common. That includes the way they play fundamental baseball, and then there is the six-player trade last November between them that brought Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie to the Twins and sent Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and a Minor League pitcher to the Rays.

Ironically, the only Tampa Bay starter that Minnesota won't face is Garza. But Bartlett will have a chance to be a pest to his former team.

The Twins aren't looking too much at the past, like how their former teammates are now helping the Rays to their unbelievably magical season. Instead, they are focused ahead at what they need to do in this series to help their playoff chances. And that's undoubtedly to pick up as many wins as possible.

"We're still taking it one game at a time," Justin Morneau said. "There's only 10 games left, but we can't think we have to win all 10. We have to go in and try to win tomorrow, and go from there. We've had our chances to make up some ground and haven't done it. We need to take advantage when we have that chance."

Pitching matchup
MIN: LHP Glen Perkins (12-4, 4.40 ERA)
Perkins will be looking to rebound from one of his worst starts of the season, going just three innings, allowing six earned runs off five hits. Fortunately for Perkins, his line didn't matter, as the Twins had already put the game out of reach early on with a 12-run onslaught against the Orioles on Saturday night. The left-hander struggled with his control, leaving almost everything up in the zone and surrendering a three-run homer to Oscar Salazar in the third that effectively ended his night. Perkins has not faced the Rays yet this season.

TB: RHP James Shields (13-8, 3.50 ERA)
Shields earned his career-high 13th win of the season on Saturday at Yankee Stadium when he pitched eight scoreless innings, allowed just five hits while walking none and striking out six. Shields is 1-1 with a 5.94 ERA in three career starts against the Twins, and he is 8-2 with a 2.33 ERA in 15 starts at Tropicana Field this season.

Tidbits
Jesse Crain rejoined the Twins shortly before Wednesday night's contest in Cleveland. He pitched 1 1/3 innings in the loss ... Brian Buscher jammed his left thumb and left the game on Wednesday in the bottom of the seventh inning. He is listed as day-to-day. ... After colliding in the outfield on the final play of Tuesday's game, Denard Span and Carlos Gomez were both back in the lineup Wednesday. Both players had slightly sore backs but said that they came out of the incident OK.

Tickets
 Buy tickets now to catch the game in person.

On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• FSN

On radio
• KSTP-AM/TRN

Up next
• Friday: Twins (Nick Blackburn, 10-9, 3.89) at Rays (Edwin Jackson, 11-11, 4.33), 6:10 p.m. CT
• Saturday: Twins (Kevin Slowey, 12-10, 3.66) at Rays (Scott Kazmir, 11-7, 3.50), 2:55 p.m. CT
• Sunday: Twins (Francisco Liriano, 5-3, 3.62) at Rays (Andy Sonnanstine, 13-7, 4.33), 12:40 p.m. CT

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.