(Sports Network) - Trying to remain in the hunt for first place in the American League East, one would think the Tampa Bay Rays would welcome a trip to Cleveland to face the last-place Indians.
Problem is, Tampa Bay hasn't won in 17 straight games at Cleveland's Progressive Field, and the Indians are also expected to get another starter back from the disabled list in time for tonight's opener of a three-game series.
The Rays currently lead the AL Wild Card race and are just three games back of the first-place Yankees in the division. They have also won five of six versus the Indians this year, but all six of those meetings took place at home.
Tonight Tampa will try to record its first victory in Cleveland since Sept. 28, 2005. The 17-game slide there is the longest in one ballpark in club history, and the Rays have been outscored 107-47 over the losing streak.
Also not helping the Rays' cause is the expected return tonight of Shin-Soo Choo to the Indians' lineup from a sprained right thumb that has sidelined him since July 2. Choo leads Cleveland with a .286 average and 13 homers and is also tied for the club lead with 43 RBI.
He is the second starter to come back from injury this week for Cleveland, which saw the return of Asdrubal Cabrera from a right forearm fracture on Tuesday.
The Indians aren't likely to be intimidated by the Rays' MLB-leading 31-17 road record, as Cleveland has lost just once since the All-Star break. The club won its first six games after the hiatus, sweeping the Tigers in four games and winning the first two contests against the Twins before Wednesday's 6-0 setback.
Jake Westbrook took the loss after allowing four runs, six hits and five walks over six innings, while Indians rookie catcher Carlos Santana went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts to halt his string of reaching base safely at 15 games.
"We won the series on the road, which is always a good accomplishment," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "The way we have played the last week or so -- we have to be encouraged by how things are going."
The Indians will try to stay hot behind Fausto Carmona, who has won two straight and five of his last seven starts. The right-hander has yielded more than three earned runs just once in his previous nine outings and is coming off Saturday's win over the Tigers. Carmona held Detroit to three runs while working around six hits and six walks over seven-plus innings of work.
The 26-year-old is 9-7 with a 3.65 earned run average this year and bested the Rays on July 9 after giving up two runs on five hits and four walks over 6 2/3 innings. Carmona improved to 3-1 with a 5.52 ERA lifetime versus Tampa Bay with that outing.
The Rays counter with right-hander Jeff Niemann, who is 8-2 with a 2.92 ERA and puts a perfect 5-0 mark in nine road starts this year on the line.
Niemann, though, has never beaten the Indians, having gone 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA in three career starts against them. He lasted just five innings versus them on July 11, allowing three runs in a no-decision.
The 27-year-old fourth overall pick of the 2004 draft also struggled in his first start after the All-Star break, yielding four runs on six hits and four walks over 6 1/3 innings on Saturday versus the Yankees. He still took a 10-5 victory and is 2-0 with a 3.75 ERA over four starts since a loss on June 25.
The Rays visit the third and final city on their current nine-game road trip after splitting the first six games in New York and Baltimore. They took two of three over the Orioles after winning Wednesday's rubber match, 5-4.
Evan Longoria homered in the victory and also forced home the go-ahead run when he drew a bases-loaded walk in the sixth inning. That got James Shields the win even though he gave up four runs on eight hits over 6 1/3 innings.
"[Wednesday] was a tough day to pitch. It seemed like it was 120 degrees out there," Shields said. "We played really good defense."
Tampa Bay was without Carl Crawford on Wednesday due to a testicular contusion suffered the previous day, when he was struck in the groin by the ball during a pickoff attempt. He could return to action tonight, however.