Tampa Bay Rays, Atlanta Braves open interleague series

Atlanta Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki (R) celebrates with Atlanta Braves right fielder Nick Markakis (L) after scoring against the Chicago Cubs in the fifth inning of a game on April 13 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Ill. Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/UPI | License Photo

By Greg Auman, The Sports Xchange – UPI

There are familiar faces on both sides as the Tampa Bay Rays and Atlanta Braves open a split interleague series — two games at Tropicana Field this week, two at SunTrust Park in August — on Tuesday night.

The Braves (19-14) remain in first place despite losing three straight to the Giants, their youthful success one of the better stories of the first month of the season. They’ve just added a new face that the Rays know well — former Blue Jays slugger Joey Bautista, who joined the team on Friday and is hitting .300 with a double and run scored in his first weekend with the Braves.

Bautista has nearly played a full season against Tampa Bay — he has played 154 games, with 31 home runs and 81 RBIs to go with a .242 batting average. That seems like a lot of home runs, but he has more against the Yankees (36) and Red Sox (43) in only slightly more games in his career.

Look closely at the Rays bullpen, and the Braves will recognize reliever Jonny Venters, who returned to the majors this season after more than five years away — he last pitched in 2012 with the Braves and has come back from three Tommy John surgeries. He’s yet to allow an earned run this season, holding opponents to a single hit in 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief.

The two teams don’t face each other often, so both starting pitchers will be going against their opponents for the first time. Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell has been a pleasant surprise as the Rays’ best pitcher — he’s 4-1 with a 2.55 ERA, and in each of his last five starts, he’s lasted at least six innings and allowed two runs or fewer.

Just 25 years old, he’s finding the consistency he lacked last season, with 45 strikeouts against just 12 walks.

The Braves go even younger with 24-year-old Sean Newcomb, who is 2-1 with a 3.38 ERA. He’s bounced back nicely from a 4-9 rookie year after being acquired from the Angels in the Andrelton Simmons trade in November 2015. Newcomb has made only one previous interleague start, and it didn’t go well, lasting only 3 1/3 innings and giving up 10 hits and seven runs in a July 4 loss to the Astros last season.

Atlanta’s hitters are a majors-best .274 at the plate, also leading the league with a .341 on-base percentage, getting surprising production from young players like second baseman Ozzie Albies, who has 10 home runs at age 21, and rookie Ronald Acuna, 20, who has two home runs in his first 11 major league games.

The Rays are 3-3 since charging back to nearly .500 — they were 4-13, then were suddenly within a game of .500 before losing to the Jays on Sunday. The Rays have committed only 14 errors in the field — only Houston (10) and Arizona (12) have fewer — but have also grounded into 31 double plays — only the White Sox and Royals, with 33 each, have more.

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