Longoria has Rays flying high in AL East
NL East-leading Nationals on fire; AL Central not so much
TAMPA BAY has welcomed back Evan Longoria. He's hitting just .244 with two home runs and nine RBIs since returning following a three-month stint on the disabled list with a torn left hamstring, but his presence stabilized a lineup for a Rays team that has won 11 of 13 with Longoria on the active roster and started to take charge in the American League Wild Card race.The Rays open a six-game homestand on Monday, which was adjusted to accommodate the Republican Convention. They didn't get their normal day off after a trip to the West Coast, and they are heading into the final six games of a stretch of 19 games in as many days. Not that the Rays have anything to complain about, following a just-completed 8-2 road trip that concluded with a four-game sweep at Anaheim. The Rays play three-game series against Kansas City and Oakland before finally getting an off-day Sunday. Tampa Bay has no complaints about the trip, even if it was the victim of Felix Hernandez's perfect game on Wednesday. The Rays bounced back nicely, setting a franchise record with 37 runs in their four-game sweep, including 27 in 17 1/3 innings against the Angels' starting foursome of Dan Haren, Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Zack Greinke. They also mounted a franchise-record-tying comeback by overcoming an 8-0 deficit for a 10-8 win. KANSAS CITY is arriving in St. Petersburg on a roll. The Royals are coming off a feel-good 5-1 homestand that began by taking two of three from Oakland and ended with a three-game sweep of the AL Central-leading White Sox. And here's the kicker: Jeremy Guthrie started the first and final games of that homestand. He carried a no-hitter into the seventh, the first time he held a team hitless through the first four innings of game, and while he had a no-decision, he saw the Royals win for his third consecutive start. Guthrie has not allowed an earned run in his past 24 2/3 innings. That comes on the heels of a 68-day winless stretch with Colorado and the Royals, in which Guthrie was 0-8 with a 7.43 ERA, and his team went 1-12 in his starts. While the Royals head down south, the White Sox are going home, where they will open a three-game series on Monday against the powerful Yankees. The two teams split their series in the Bronx at the end of June. WASHINGTON has a chance to make a major statement in the National League East race as it hosts Atlanta in a three-game series beginning on Monday. Those three are among just 16 games against a team with a winning record left on the Nationals' schedule -- seven against St. Louis, six against Atlanta and three at home with the Dodgers. Sitting five games back of Washington, Atlanta has been challenged by quality teams. The Braves are 41-18 against the eight NL teams with losing records, but just 21-26 against the five NL teams with winning marks, including just a 4-8 record against Washington. The Nationals, meanwhile, have been red-hot. They haven't lost a series since the All-Star break, going 26-12. What's more, the Nationals have a home-field advantage. No team has played fewer home games than the Nats (who along with Arizona have played 57 home games). And the Nationals have enjoyed playing at home, where they are 34-23 (.576), the second-best home-field winning percentage in the NL. Cincinnati is 41-22 at home (.651), the best home-field record in the big leagues. THREE DOWN
THE METS went to a modified six-man rotation with the addition of Jeremy Hefner, who gave up five runs in five innings of a 5-2 loss at Washington on Sunday. The plan is for knuckleballer R.A. Dickey to remain on his normal fifth day.Mets management wants to slow down a second-half slide. Remember that it was just three weeks ago that president Sandy Alderson declined to unload any players prior to the non-waiver Trade Deadline because of hope the Mets had a run remaining. The rotation has undermined that. New York is 11-24 since the All-Star break, and its rotation is 10-19 with a 4.93 ERA, which ranks 13th in the NL. The starters have worked only 202 2/3 innings, ahead of just Houston (202 1/3) and Colorado (149). At the break, the Mets' rotation had a 3.43 ERA, third in the NL at the time, and had worked 534 1/3 innings, fourth in the NL. Johan Santana and Chris Young, both battling to regain arm strength after serious injuries, are the primary concerns. In 10 starts since he pitched the first no-hitter in franchise history and threw 134 pitches against St. Louis on June 1, Santana is 3-7 with an 8.27 ERA. He has allowed 68 hits and 18 walks in 49 innings. Young is 1-5 in his last eight starts, and the Mets are 1-7 in those games. He has a 5.32 ERA. It's all about the future for an ASTROS team that lost 100 games (56-106) for the first time last year and is on pace for 111 losses this year. Manager Brad Mills was relieved of his duties Saturday night after compiling a three-year record of 171-274, the 11th-worst success rate in Major League history. On the bright side, the only contract obligation the Astros have for 2013 is the $500,000 buyout on a $4 million option for catcher Chris Snyder. THE AL CENTRAL has become baseball's version of "Survivor." The White Sox have been struggling, going 10-10 since July 29, but Detroit hasn't been able to make a move because the Tigers are 11-9 over that same stretch. The White Sox keep getting in their own way. They rank 13th in the AL in average (.246) since the All-Star break, they are eighth in ERA (4.15) and they have the worst fielding percentage (.983) and the most errors (23) of any AL team. And now the White Sox come home to host the Yankees in a three-game series starting on Monday. Chicago also has a four-game trip to Baltimore coming up, and it hosts Tampa Bay in a four-game series at the end of September. The Tigers, meanwhile, are done with the AL East. Detroit, in fact, has just 16 games remaining against teams with winning records, five fewer than Chicago.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.