(SportsNetwork.com) - The Tampa Bay Rays have been recently unaccustomed to a sub-.500 mark at the All-Star break, so they've placed a special premium on getting a good second-half start.
The Rays will get that task underway on Friday night at Target Field, when they visit the site of the recent All-Star Game to open a three-game series with the Minnesota Twins.
Tampa Bay won just 44 games before the break this season, which is its fewest since the Rays won just 34 times in 2007. The franchise turned around the following season with a World Series berth and has been an American League playoff contender ever since.
The Rays started abysmally slow this season, but they've won eight of their last nine on the road and their 13-5 record in the last 18 games is second- best in the majors, which has manager Joe Maddon allowing himself to chart a course for a relevant second half.
They begin while trailing the final wild card spot by eight games, and the AL East-leading Baltimore Orioles by 9 1/2 games.
"I've permitted myself to look at our record; we're less than 10 under," Maddon said. "We're still trending in the right direction. It's still a tough hill to climb, but I think our guys are up for the challenge."
The Twins finished with five wins in six road games and find themselves 6 1/2 games off the wild card pace and 10 1/2 in back of Detroit in the AL Central.
"We knew coming into this series, or this whole road trip, not really make-or- break, but a huge test what we're going to do after the break, whether buy or sell," Minnesota's Brian Dozier said. "I want to try to do everything to contend. In all of our opinions, we think we're good enough."
Joe Mauer will be absent from the second-half beginning thanks to an oblique muscle strain, but Danny Santana may be ready to come back from a bruised knee.
Rays starter Alex Cobb will meet the Twins for the first time.
He tossed 6 2/3 innings and failed to get a decision in his last start, which ended in a 5-4 loss to the Kansas City Royals on July 9.
Minnesota will start Kyle Gibson, whose seven shutout innings on July 9 were good for the Twins' 8-1 defeat of Seattle, after he'd managed just two innings in two of three previous starts.
He took a 7-3 loss to the Rays on April 22 after giving up 10 hits in three innings.
One previous start against Tampa Bay ended in a 4-1 loss in 2013.
Though the Twins won two of three over the Rays in late April, Tampa Bay has still claimed 12 of the previous 15 encounters.