Thu Aug 11 11:58pm ET
If you think mid-August is too early to talk about the major league postseason picture, you might want to think again.
When the surging Baltimore Orioles face the slumping Tampa Bay Rays for the first meeting of a three-game series at St. Petersburg, Fla. on Friday night, it will amount to essentially a playoff series.
After all, the Orioles and Rays currently are in a tight battle for the American League's final wild-card spot, with a few teams right behind them.
The Rays have lost three of their last four games, most recently falling 4-3 in 10 innings at Milwaukee on Wednesday.
The Orioles, on the other hand, have some momentum on their side. Despite a 4-3 loss to Boston on Thursday night, Baltimore is 37-23 since the start of June. The Orioles are also 7-2 since the start of August.
The Rays keep pointing to the end of August or early September for the return of two offensive leaders, Wander Franco and Harold Ramirez.
Franco (wrist) and Ramirez (thumb) were injured in mid-July. The first positive news on either of them came from Rays manager Kevin Cash on Wednesday.
"Wander and Harold might be taking (batting practice) with us on the field Friday just to see where they're at," Cash said.
Even if Franco and Ramirez hit well, Cash said they will need to play in four or five rehab games before playing in the big leagues.
The Orioles also heard some good news on the injury front. Pitcher Grayson Rodriguez, one of the organization's top prospects, is expected to throw off the Monday on Friday as he recovers from a lat strain.
It's likely that Rodriguez will return in a minor league setting -- at first -- but the Orioles aren't ruling out the possibility of Rodriguez pitching in the big leagues this year.
"He feels really good," Baltimore general manager Mike Elias said. "I still do not have a timetable, but I would probably increase our desire to get him onto a game mound before the year is over than at the initial time that I made the announcement his injury happened. We're hoping for that."
With Tampa Bay trying to hold on until offensive help is ready, the Rays will catch a break in this series. Their top three pitchers -- Corey Kluber, Shane McClanahan and Drew Rasmussen -- will get starts against Baltimore.
"I think every team's goal in spring training is to have these games mean something when it comes down to the end," said Kluber, a two-time Cy Young Award winner who will start Friday night. "So, to be in that position, it's something we'll embrace and go out there and play our best baseball toward the end."
Unlike Tampa Bay, the Orioles haven't struggled offensively. That's in large part because second baseman Rougned Odor has been providing more than enough. His two-run homer on Tuesday night provided the difference in a 6-5 win against visiting Toronto.
"Roogie has come up with some big hits for us, and I love the attitude he brings,'' Baltimore manager Brandon Hyde said. "I feel like he brings some toughness to us. I think he brings some edge. I love what he's like in the dugout and attitude-wise, and he comes ready to play. I think it's rubbed off on others this year."
--Field Level Media