MLB

Preview: Austin Pruitt kicks off Rays' critical series against Royals

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Two stressed teams with playoff aspirations send two struggling starters to the mound Monday night at Kauffman Stadium.

The Kansas City Royals, who were shut out in all three games at Cleveland over the weekend and have not scored since the second inning Thursday, entertain the Tampa Bay Rays for a three-game series.

The Royals (64-65) dropped one game below .500 on Sunday following a 12-0 loss, with the Indians scoring all of the runs in the first two innings.

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The Rays (65-67) are two games below .500 after Logan Morrison hit two home runs Sunday in Tampa Bay's 3-2, 10-inning victory at St. Louis. Tampa Bay won two of three from the Cardinals and took two of three from Toronto in the previous series. The Cardinals swept four games from the Royals earlier this month.

Kansas City will turn Monday to right-hander Ian Kennedy (4-9, 5.09 ERA), who is winless in a franchise-record 16 straight home starts.

Tampa Bay will counter with right-hander Austin Pruitt, who yielded four home runs on Wednesday against the Toronto Blue Jays. That was the most homers served up by a Tampa Bay pitcher since Matt Moore also permitted four on Sept. 12, 2015, against the Boston Red Sox.

Pruitt (6-4, 5.76 ERA) gave up three home runs in the second inning. He was removed after 3 2/3 innings, having allowed five runs on seven hits.

"He's got to keep the ball in the ballpark," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "That's kind of blunt, but that's what it is. Austin generally doesn't allow free passes, doesn't walk too many guys, but we've got to find a way to make some pitches and allow our defense to make plays for him."

Pruitt has a 7.56 ERA in his past three starts, giving up 14 runs over 16 2/3 innings. In his first three starts after his recall, Pruitt registered a 3.12 ERA.

The Royals failed to muster any offense against the Indians' pitchers. They have been shut out a major-league-leading 14 times this season. The 34-inning scoreless streak is the longest in franchise history.

"I felt like we were pressing in April, when we weren't scoring, but I don't feel that way now," Kansas City manager Ned Yost said.

The Royals lost five of six to the Indians in their past nine games. They trail first-place Cleveland by nine games in the American League Central and are 2 1/2 games in arrears of the Minnesota Twins for the second AL wild card.

"The wild card is always your fall-back plan," Yost said. "We certainly didn't help ourselves this weekend. We had a chance to do something in the division, with six games in nine days against Cleveland. We could have picked up some ground, but we couldn't do it. We didn't help ourselves at all in the division by coming here and getting swept."

The Rays are a half-game behind the Royals in the wild-card chase.

"It's a big series," Cash said. "They're all big series. They're probably doubly magnified when you're playing teams that you can directly affect their spot and vice versa."

The Royals want to be careful facing Morrison, who upped his home run total to 31 on Sunday, when his second long ball of the day was the game-winner in the 10th inning.

"It was good that we came out on top -- it doesn't really matter how -- just come out on top some way, somehow," Morrison said. "I feel like we're never out of it. We can turn it around with one swing, and we were able to do that today."

The Royals, who won two of three in May at Tampa Bay, have had their way with the Rays recently in Kansas City, winning eight straight vs. Tampa Bay at Kauffman Stadium and 15 of the past 16.

Then again, Kennedy has not won at home in more than a year. Kennedy is 1-4 with a 4.64 ERA in eight career starts vs. Tampa Bay. In two starts last season against the Rays, he allowed one unearned run over 12 innings with 15 strikeouts but had to settle for no-decisions. He has not opposed them this year.

His lone victory against the Rays was Sept. 1, 2007, in his big league debut while with the New York Yankees.

Pruitt has faced the Royals only once. He allowed three runs (one earned) in a two-inning relief appearance on May 8.