Preview: Rays seek series win as they finish up with Royals

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TIME: Pregame coverage begins at 7:30 p.m.

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Tampa Bay Rays and the Kansas City Royals have sub-.500 records.

Normally that would rule a club out of postseason contention by the end of August, but this year is different. The Rays (66-68) and the Royals (65-66) are among a plethora of American League clubs contending for a wild-card berth.

The Minnesota Twins own the second wild-card position, but the Los Angeles Angels, Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Kansas City and Tampa Bay are all within 3 1/2 games of that sacred spot.

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"We're still in the middle of this thing," said Whit Merrifield, who homered in the third inning Tuesday to end the Royals' 45-inning scoreless skid, leading Kansas City to a 6-2 victory.

"We've got a month and some change left, and we're three games back for the wild card. We've got a good shot at this thing. We believe in ourselves. We're going to keep chugging away, and hopefully we can build on this."

The Rays and Royals conclude their three-game series Thursday at Kauffman Stadium after splitting the first two games.

"We're getting down to the end right now, so each game is huge for us," said Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, who hit a three-run homer in the seventh inning Tuesday.

The Rays' Wednesday starter will be right-hander Jake Odorizzi, who made his major league debut with the Royals. He started two games in 2012 for Kansas City but was traded to Tampa Bay after the season as part of a package to get Wade Davis and James Shields.

Will Odorizzi get an adrenaline rush facing his former club?

"It's been a while (since he pitched for Kansas City)," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "He's kind of been there, done that, but I would imagine he's got some good buddies over there.

"That brings the competition a little bit more, but I think Jake is really just focused on going out and giving a good outing and helping us try to win a game here in Kansas City."

Odorizzi (6-7, 4.82 ERA) has lasted just 3 2/3 innings in each of his past two starts, the first time in his career he went less than four innings in back-to-back outings.

In a no-decision Friday at St. Louis, Odorizzi gave up three runs, three hits, including a home run, and four walks while striking out four.

He has been haunted by the long ball, allowing at least one home run in all but two of his 22 starts this year. Odorizzi has permitted 27 gopher balls in 112 innings, two homers shy of matching his career high set in 2016 in 187 2/3 innings.

Odorizzi has not fared well against the Royals, posting a 1-4 record with a 4.65 ERA in six career starts. He has pitched once at Kauffman Stadium as a visitor, allowing 10 hits and seven runs in five innings during a loss on April 9, 2014.

Hosmer is 5-for-15 with a home run against Odorizzi. Alcides Escobar is 3-for-4 (.214), and Salvador Perez is 4-for-13 (.308).

The Royals will counter with left-hander Jason Vargas, who pitched an inning in the All-Star Game. He began the season 12-3 with a 2.62 ERA. Vargas, however, is 2-5 with a 6.69 ERA in eight starts since the All-Star break.

Vargas (14-8, 3.72 ERA) is 7-4 with a 3.57 ERA in 13 home starts this season. He is 15-10 with a 4.01 as a Royal at Kauffman Stadium.

He is 5-5 with a 2.80 ERA in 12 career outings, 11 of them starts, against the Rays. Vargas beat Tampa Bay 6-0 on May 11 at Tropicana Field.

Vargas lost his last start, on Friday in Cleveland, permitting four runs and six hits in five innings. Francisco Lindor hit a two-run homer off Vargas in the fifth inning. Vargas has surrendered 19 home runs in 145 1/3 innings.