Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays face off in a battle of the AL's best

The Orioles and Rays face off with standings positions at stake
The Baltimore Orioles are in first place in the American League East
The Baltimore Orioles are in first place in the American League East / Mike Ehrmann/GettyImages

They say in order to be the best, you have to beat the best. Well, the Orioles are 3-2 after taking two of three against the Tampa Bay Rays in May and splitting a two game series with them in June. The Rays got off to a historic start this season, but the O's have fought hard all season long and have now taken a percentage points lead over the Rays for first in the American League East. These two teams have the best records in the junior circuit and will now go head to head for the third time this season, in a four game series.

Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays face off in tightly contested matchup for AL East supremacy

The Orioles are coming in hot, even though they lost two of three to the Los Angeles Dodgers, having gone 9-2 over their last 11 games. They were firing on all cylinders during an eight game win streak that helped them close the gap between them and the Rays. After dropping the first two games to the Dodgers, the O's bats took over to secure a game three win and some momentum heading into the showdown with the Rays.

Game one: Kyle Gibson vs Tyler Glasnow

The Orioles will send veteran Kyle Gibson to the mound in game one of the series. Gibson is coming off of a start against the Miami Marlins that saw him surrender five runs in 5.1 innings and will look to rebound from that. In his previous start he tied a career best with 11 strikeouts. Gibson has faced the Rays once this season and even though he took the loss, he pitched well, only giving up two runs on six hits in 6.0 innings. He will look to replicate those numbers against the Rays and hope the bats stay hot.

Tyler Glasnow is having another good season and will try to continue that against the Orioles. The righty will have to face the tough left handed version of the Orioles lineup. The Birds have seen Glasnow this season back in June, also taking a loss, when they knocked him out of the game by scoring six earned runs against him in on 4.1 innings. Glasnow will be looking for revenge while the Orioles will look to duplicate the previous results.

Game two: Kyle Bradish vs Zach Eflin

Ace pitcher in training Kyle Bradish gets the ball for game two of the series. Bradish has been nothing short of dominant recently for the Orioles. So far in July, Bradish has a 0.47 ERA, having only allowed one earned run in 19.1 innings over three games. He's been going deeper into games and getting more swings and misses. Bradish has already beaten the Rays once this year, striking out eight Rays hitters in 5.0 innings. We will see if Kyle #2 can bring win #2 in the series.

Zach Eflin is in the middle of a comeback season in Tampa. After falling from grace with the Philadelphia Phillies and being moved to the bullpen, Eflin signed with the Rays in the off-season. Cash moved Eflin back to the starting rotation and it has paid off. Eflin is 10-5 this season with 105 strikeouts. He's two wins and 25 strikeouts away from setting career highs in those categories, all while posting a career best 3.59 ERA. Eflin took the loss in his May outing against the Orioles.

Game three: Grayson Rodriguez vs Shane McClanahan

GrayRod's return to the Orioles rotation against the Dodgers was full of hope. His fastball was explosive, touching 102 MPH, and his overall control was much better. Unfortunately, Rodriguez got into some late trouble and the bullpen was not able to hold the lead. Still, there is plenty to be excited about as he's only 23 years old. Grayson has already shown the ability to handle the Rays lineup when he pitched 5.2 innings against them on May 9, the longest outing of his rookie season, and allowed only two runs. GrayRod will need to come with his A game in this tough matchup.

If the season were to end today, Shane McClanahan would most likely be named the AL Cy Young winner. The all-star lefty is having a career year. McClanahan is leading baseball with 11 wins and brandishing an AL best 2.56 ERA. The Baltimore native will look to again shut down his hometown team like he did in May when he shut out the Birds for 6.0 innings and only allowed four hits. The O's lineup has made some improvements since then and will try to hand McClanahan only his second loss of the season.

Game four: Tyler Wells vs Taj Bradley

Tyler Wells will look to return to ace form in the Sunday matinée after making by far his shortest outing of the season against the Dodgers. Wells surrendered five runs on six hits and needed 59 pitches just to get through 2.0 innings. Wells still leads all of baseball with a 0.98 WHIP and will hopefully show everyone that his last outing was just a blip in the radar. Wells pitched well in his start against the Rays in June giving up two earned runs in 5.0 innings while striking out six batters, but two unearned runs tilted the game in the Rays favor.

Taj Bradley is one of just a few Rays not having a good season. The 22 year old rookie is 5-6 with a 5.29 ERA, but let's not forget what he did in his appearance against the Orioles this season. When he faced off against Wells the first time, it was Bradley who reigned supreme, allowing one run on three hits in 6.0 innings while striking out eight Orioles hitters. The Birds batters will be hungry for revenge in this game.

On paper the matchup would seem to favor the Rays who lead the Orioles in most major offensive and pitching categories, but baseball is not played on paper. Both teams are full of talent and have two of the game's best managers. Kevin Cash is a two time Manager of the Year with the Rays and seems to always find a way to get the most out of his players. Brandon Hyde has been able to push all the right buttons this year and looks to be the favorite for this year's Manager of the Year award. Orioles hitters have been locked in lately and will need to stay that way against a talented Rays pitching staff.

The Birds are entering the series with a taxed bullpen but have just announced that they once again traded with the Oakland Athletics for a pitcher. The Orioles will welcome Shintaro Fujinami to the bullpen while sending Easton Lucas back to Oakland. Fujinami got off to a tough start in April and May in his first season in the Majors but has bounced back nicely. So far in July, Fujinami has a 2.25 ERA with 10 strikeouts in 8.0 innings while holding opposing batters to a .154 BAA. Middle relief has been an Orioles weakness this season and adding another power arm to the bullpen could help the Birds hold onto the first place position they are now in in the AL East.