The Florida Marlins are playing some of their best baseball of the season. Sending ace Josh Johnson to the mound is a good way for them to continue this string of solid play.
The Marlins go for their sixth consecutive victory Friday night as they open a three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.Hanley Ramirez hit his franchise-tying third grand slam of the season and drove in five runs Thursday as Florida (38-36) capped a 5-1 homestand with an 11-3 rout of Baltimore. The current surge has moved the Marlins two games over .500 for the first time since May 10.Florida won a season-best seven straight from April 12-19."I have (Jorge) Cantu behind me so I know they have to pound the zone," said Ramirez, batting .423 with three homers and 13 RBIs during his seven-game hitting streak. "I think our starting pitching has been going deep in games. That's the key to take us to a different level."Johnson (7-1, 2.66 ERA) has lasted seven innings or more in six consecutive starts, with the Marlins winning all of those contests."That's huge for me," Johnson said of extended outings. "That means I'm doing what I'm supposed to do."The right-hander yielded one run and three hits over seven innings in Saturday's 2-1 victory over the New York Yankees."He didn't throw this hard when I was here," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, Florida's manager in 2006 when Johnson went 12-7 with a 3.10 ERA.Johnson, who has allowed two or fewer runs in 10 of 15 starts, faces Tampa Bay for the second time this season. On May 24, he struck out seven and gave up three runs over seven innings as the Marlins won 5-4 in 11 to snap a five-game skid against Tampa Bay.Rays right-hander James Shields (6-5, 3.36) struck out seven in that game while allowing four runs and a career-worst 12 hits.Since that defeat, though, Shields is 3-1 with a 2.86 ERA in five starts.In his last outing -- the 100th start of his career -- Shields yielded one run and three hits to outpitch Johan Santana as Tampa Bay defeated the New York Mets 3-1 on Saturday. He set down the last 14 batters he faced, winning on the road for the first time since April 12 at Baltimore."It was a battle today," Shield said on Saturday. "I try not to feed off their pitcher -- just go out and throw my game."Shields is 2-1 with a 4.13 ERA in five starts versus the Marlins.In a rematch of last season's World Series, Tampa Bay (39-35) took two of three from defending champion Philadelphia to open its six-game homestand.Willy Aybar was 3 for 4 with a homer and three RBIs in Thursday's 10-4 victory. He started at third base in place of Evan Longoria, who sat out with soreness in his left hamstring. Longoria is expected back in the lineup Friday.Longoria is batting .458 with two homers and seven RBIs in his last five games against Florida.Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett improved his batting average to .371 with two hits Thursday. He has hit safely in a franchise-best 19 straight games.Dan Uggla's power surge continued Thursday with a two-run homer. The Marlins second baseman has four homers and five RBIs in his last seven games. Uggla, however, is batting just .205 with two home runs in 19 games against the Rays.