All that is stopping them Thursday are the American

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    ST. PETERSBURG Josh Oliver Jersey , Fla. — Can the Tampa Bay Rays, the hottest team in baseball, finally get back to .500 for the season?

    League West-leading and defending World Series champion Houston Astros, who come to Tropicana Field for a four-game series.

    Tampa Bay (39-40) hasn’t just won five straight — its pitching owns a scoreless streak of 22 innings since Giancarlo Stanton homered off Vidal Nuno in Sunday’s game against the New York Yankees.

    The Rays are on their fourth winning streak of at least five games this season and can reach .500 for the third time this season and first instance since they were 26-26 following a 1-0 win at Oakland on May 28.

    And as well as the Rays are playing, holding opponents to one run or less eight times in their last 14 games, the Astros (54-28) are still 17-3 in their last 20 games. One of those losses, ending a 12-game win streak last week, was a 2-1 setback against these same Rays.

    Tampa Bay began its relievers-as-starters experiment on May 19 and manager Kevin Cash calls them “openers.” Since then, the Rays have the lowest ERA in baseball at 2.87, edging the Yankees (2.96).

    “The pitching’s been outstanding, keeping us in every single ballgame,” Cash told reporters. “It’s kind of how we’re built. We’ve got to take advantage of it when we get it. And we’re getting it here of late.”

    A big part of Tampa Bay’s effectiveness is reliever-turned-opener Ryne Stanek (1-1, 1.99) who gets the ball first for the Rays on Thursday.

    Stanek has been dominant in his unique role in June — 10 games, 13 innings, only four hits and no earned runs. He faced the Astros on back-to-back days last week, oddly enough as a starter and reliever, throwing a combined 2 2/3 innings of hitless Deandre Baker Jersey , shutout baseball.

    The Astros head to Tampa Bay after taking two of three from the Toronto Blue Jays. Houston closed out the series Wednesday afternoon when Alex Bregman hit a two-run homer in the ninth for a 7-6 win.

    Bregman went 3-for-5 and was 9-for-14 with three homers against the Blue Jays.

    “Bregman’s pretty locked in the last couple of days,” Houston left-hander Dallas Keuchel told reporters. “That’s what he provides for our team, moments in the clutch.”

    It will be a homecoming for Astros starter Lance McCullers (8-3, 3.82), who was born in Tampa and graduated from Tampa’s Jesuit High School. Still just 24, McCullers has already set a career high for wins and hasn’t taken a loss in his last five starts. Houston is 11-5 in his starts this season.

    McCullers has pitched at Tropicana twice before, once each in 2015 and 2016, and each time, he’s allowed four earned runs in six innings for an 0-2 record and a 6.00 ERA in his career against the Rays.

    The relievers-as-starters strategy is just part of Cash’s unconventional approach.

    In Tuesday’s 1-0 win against the Nationals, Cash played a pitcher at first base for one out, shifting reliever Jose Alvarado to first to avoid having to make a situational pitching change. Chaz Roe got the out with Alvarado manning first (with a runner to hold no less), and while Alvarado gave up two hits in his return to the mound, Sergio Romo got the final outs and the Rays outdueled Max Scherzer for a memorable win.

    This four-game series wraps up a daunting 16-game run for the Rays in which they had seven games each against the Astros and Yankees (and two against the Nationals). And yet, somehow, they’re 7-5 in those games with four remaining.

    From there, the schedule eases up, as Tampa Bay goes on the road to face the Miami Marlins and the New York Mets. The Astros have two games at the Texas Rangers http://www.newyorkgiantsteamonline.com/oshane-ximines-jersey , but then close the first half of the season with 11 straight games at home before the All-Star break.

    LOS ANGELES (AP) — Even after everything the Los Angeles Rams have accomplished this season, they still knew they probably needed to beat rival San Francisco in the finale for a first-round playoff bye.Although their high-powered offense did its part as usual, a four-takeaway effort by the defense was even more exciting while the Rams secured a well-deserved week off.Brandin Cooks and Josh Reynolds caught two touchdown passes apiece from Jared Goff, and the Rams wrapped up a six-game sweep of their NFC West opponents with a 48-32 victory over the 49ers on Sunday.Article continues below …Cory Littleton returned one of his two interceptions for a TD as the Rams (13-3) completed their winningest regular season since 2001 by making sure they get a few days off before they attempt to earn their first playoff victory since the 2004 season.“We’ll enjoy all of that tonight, and understand how big of an accomplishment that is,” said Goff, who passed for 199 yards. “You feel great @ 13-3. We’re coming off two great wins, and we get to finish the season 6-0 (against the division). Only team in the league that did that.”The Rams needed the win over the Niners or a loss by Chicago to clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC postseason. Los Angeles didn’t count on the Bears, who ended up beating Minnesota. The Rams played nearly every starter except Todd Gurley and jumping to a 14-0 lead in the first five minutes before stretching it to 28-3 midway through the second quarter.C.J. Anderson rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown in his second 100-yard game in place of Gurley, who sat out again to rest his knees.The Rams hadn’t swept San Francisco since 2004, but coach Sean McVay dropped 87 points on his friend Kyle Shanahan’s club in two meetings this season.“We’re going into (the bye week) with a lot of confidence after this,” Reynolds said. “The rest is going to help us out, and we’ll be at our best when the playoffs start.”Nick Mullens passed for 282 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions for the 49ers (4-12), who wrapped up their fifth consecutive non-winning season. San Francisco went winless on the road for the first time since 1979, Bill Walsh’s first season in charge.George Kittle set the NFL’s single-season record for yards receiving by a tight end with 1,377 when he caught a 43-yard touchdown pass from Mullens with 2:20 left. Alfred Morris rushed for 111 yards and a score.While the Rams’ defense put together a series of big plays to cap a strong month of work, San Francisco’s defense set an NFL record with just seven takeaways all season after failing to force a turnover by Goff and his teammates.“That was the disappointing thing about the game Julian Love Jersey ,” Shanahan said. “Not just Nick. It was about everybody. Starting that game off with four turnovers, same way we did the last time versus them, it doesn’t give yourself much of a chance to play.”The Rams clinched the division four weeks ago, but missed the chance to secure a week off when they lost at Chicago two weeks later. The Bears pushed LA until the final week, but the Rams took control quickly at the Coliseum.On the game’s fourth snap, Aqib Talib returned a fumble inside the Niners 10. After Cooks caught a TD pass, Littleton returned his first interception 22 yards and Anderson punched it in.Littleton, the Rams’ do-it-all linebacker and Pro Bowl special-teamer, took his second pick 19 yards to the house early in the second quarter for what he claimed was the first defensive touchdown of his football life.KITTLE’S MARKKittle got the record with nine catches for 149 yards, including five for 95 yards in the fourth quarter. He surpassed both Rob Gronkowski’s 2011 record of 1,327 yards and the new mark set earlier Sunday by Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, who finished this season with 1,336.“I was like, ‘Well, I’ll let (Kelce) have it for a little bit, and then I’m going to take it,’” Kittle said.The Niners were determined to get the record http://www.newyorkgiantsteamonline.com/darius-slayton-jersey , targeting Kittle 14 times — including six times in the fourth quarter of a blowout. Shanahan said he wanted this record after Kittle had 210 yards receiving in the first half against Denver earlier this month, but failed to top Shannon Sharpe’s single-game record of 214 yards for a tight end because he didn’t catch a pass in the second half.“My position coach and some other guys were giving me little updates,” Kittle said. “Definitely going into the last drive, ‘Hey, you need 9 yards, so make it 15.’ I said, ‘Hey, I’ll take it to the end zone, I guess.’”DONALD’S DOMINANCEAaron Donald had one sack to finish with 20½ for the season. The Rams’ peerless defensive tackle fell short of Michael Strahan’s single-season sacks record of 22½, but Donald still set an NFL record with 183.5 total sack yards when he dropped Mullens for an 8-yard loss in the first half.INJURIES49ers: LG Laken Tomlinson left the field on a cart in the second quarter with an apparent right knee injury.Rams: LT Andrew Whitworth injured his knee in the second quarter. He didn’t return, but rookie Joseph Noteboom appeared to play well in his absence. McVay is cautiously optimistic Whitworth’s injury is no more than a bruise. … The Rams rested Gurley and safety Lamarcus Joyner. Blake Countess started in Joyner’s place, but left early with a concussion.

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