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Sizzling Astros shoot for series sweep of Rays

The Houston Astros have come to Florida and played like the best club in the American League.

Right now, the Tampa Bay Rays would put up no argument to dispute that.

Blanked in their first two games against Houston, the Rays will oppose the American League West champs in the finale of a three-game series on Wednesday night in St. Petersburg, Fla.

While the Astros (98-51) are know for power bats, it’s their pitching that has dominated the first two contests in 4-0 and 5-0 wins over the Rays (82-66).

“It’s good pitching, no doubt,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “It’s been two quiet nights. The guys know that we have to turn it around. Hopefully, it starts sooner than later.”

Not only was there disappointment with a second consecutive scoreless night — a first for the Rays since Aug. 11-12, 2017, against Cleveland — but there was a hiccup with Shane McClanahan, who just recently returned from the 15-day injured list.

The southpaw appeared to hurt his neck in the fifth inning and pleaded unsuccessfully with Cash to let him stay in the game.

The skipper wasn’t overly concerned and said he didn’t believe McClanahan’s neck ailment was anything serious.

“I think he’s in a pretty good spot,” Cash said. “He was adamant that he did not want to come out. It’s OK for him to be mad at me.”

In the finale, Cash and pitching coach Kyle Snyder will be looking for starter Corey Kluber (10-9, 4.44 ERA) to compete with a lot more precision on his pitches.

Over his past two starts, the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner has been battered for 10 runs — the same amount he let in across five starts and 28 1/3 innings in June. In starts Sept. 10 against the New York Yankees and Friday against the Texas Rangers, he yielded 17 hits and in 6 1/3 innings.

Kluber has made 10 career starts and one relief appearance against Houston, going 6-3 with a 3.03 ERA in 65 1/3 innings. However, he hasn’t opposed the Astros since 2019.

While the Houston pitching has been outstanding, the Astros’ bats have been sufficient.

Jose Altuve has five hits, five runs, a homer and walk through the first two games of the series. Jeremy Pena hit a three-run homer and a single on Tuesday, while Kyle Tucker reached the 100-RBI mark for the first time.

“I love it,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “That’s something that a lot of people never get to, including me. I was pulling for him.”

Lance McCullers Jr., a native of the Tampa Bay area, will close out the series for Houston in front of family and friends.

A prep sensation at Tampa powerhouse Jesuit High School where alumni such as Hall of Fame manager Al Lopez and three-time World Series champion Lou Pinella learned the game, McCullers (3-1, 2.34 ERA) has allowed two runs or fewer in five of six starts since making his 2022 debut on Aug. 13.

In five career starts against the Rays, he is 3-2 with a 2.81 ERA. At the Rays’ domed home, McCullers is 2-2 with a 2.77 ERA in four outings.

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