After overpowering the best team in the majors, the Tampa Bay Rays are no longer sneaking up on anyone.
The Rays look to keep it going Friday against one of baseball's worst teams as they open a three-game series versus the Houston Astros, who are trying to avoid dropping their ninth straight.Tampa Bay (43-29) defeated the Chicago Cubs 8-3 on Thursday to sweep a three-game set from the NL Central leaders.The Rays trailed 3-1 in the seventh, but scored seven in the bottom half of that inning, highlighted by Carl Crawford's grand slam."We've been playing good," said Crawford, who went 3-for-5 on Thursday. "After winning three games like this, it's going to be hard to argue that we're not one of the good teams in the league."The Rays are 1 1/2 games behind AL East-leading Boston, which owns the best record in the AL. Tampa is also 14 games over .500 for the first time in franchise history and has set a club record for victories before the All-Star break."It validates what we've been doing. It does give us more confidence. There's no question about that," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of the sweep. "I don't know how else I can say it. ... Hopefully it's going to catapult us even further."Tampa Bay has been nearly unbeatable at home, winning 25 of its last 29. The Astros (33-40), meanwhile have lost five straight road games, and 10 of 11 away from Houston.In the series opener, Maddon gives the ball to Matt Garza (5-3, 4.06 ERA), who has posted a 0.92 ERA in winning his last four home starts.On Saturday, Garza gave up one run and three hits in seven innings of a 4-1 home win over Florida. It was his first start since the right-hander and catcher Dioner Navarro got into an argument on the mound and later clashed in the dugout on June 8 at Texas."It was a huge step in the right direction," said Garza, who will be making his first career start against the Astros.The Astros were 1 1/2 games out of first place in the NL Central on May 27, but have dropped 17 of their last 20 to fall 12 games behind the Cubs.Houston lost to Baltimore 7-5 on Thursday, and has been outscored 57-28 during its eight-game losing streak -- its longest since dropping 10 in a row May 20-30, 2007."We have a lot of veterans on this team and guys who have been through it before," Lance Berkman said. "It doesn't do a whole lot of good to panic. In fact, I think it's counterproductive. We've got to do something to right the ship. It's just been a tough last three weeks for us."Roy Oswalt (5-7, 5.04) looks to bounce back from one of his worst starts of the season when he takes the ball.After allowing one run and five hits in seven innings of a 6-1 win over Milwaukee on June 10, Oswalt was tagged for seven runs -- three earned -- eight hits and four walks in 5 2-3 innings of a 13-0 loss to the New York Yankees on Sunday. The right-hander needed 72 pitches to get through the first three innings and matched a season high with 117.Oswalt has just one victory in his last six starts, and has posted a 5.68 ERA in losing his last three on the road. He has also lost his last three interleague starts, and is just 1-4 with a 4.58 ERA in nine starts versus the AL since 2006.This will be his first career start against Tampa.