The calendar says end of July, but this weekend's showdown between the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees at Tropicana Field will have a pennant race feel.
All three games of the series have sold out, the Rays said Thursday, marking the first time the club has sold out three consecutive games.
"I think it's going to be very intense, and we always welcome that,'' first baseman Carlos Pena said after driving in all four runs for the Rays in Thursday's 4-2 victory against the Detroit Tigers. "Who doesn't love playing in front of big crowds? That's really a dream right there. When you have a packed house, you cannot even hear yourself talk.''
The Rays (63-38) swept the Tigers and have won six in a row to stay two games behind the Yankees (65-36) in the American League East.
The Yankees beat Cleveland 11-4 Thursday night, and Alex Rodriguez didn't hit a home run, meaning he'll have a chance to reach the 600 milestone at the Trop.
The Yankees have won five of seven games since Rodriguez hit homer No. 599 on July 22. Rodriguez is 9-for-30 with eight RBIs over that stretch.
Only six major-league players have cracked the 600 plateau: Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714), Willie Mays (660), Ken Griffey Jr. (630) and Sammy Sosa (609).
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon reiterated the Rays' philosophy of not giving any game or series more weight than another, but admitted he's looking forward to the big-game atmosphere.
"I'm sure there's going to be quite a vibe,'' he said. "I just think whenever we get our full house in here, our guys feel it, and it's kind of fun for everybody. We just played up there (dropping two of three at Yankee Stadium); I thought it was an interesting series right after the All-Star break. They're still playing well, we're playing well; I think it will be interesting.''
The Rays and Yankees have split their eight games this year, with Tampa Bay holding a 3-2 advantage at Yankee Stadium. This will be New York's first visit to the Trop since taking two out of three April 9-11.
Tampa Bay has some concerns. Ben Zobrist (stiff lower back) and B.J. Upton (sprained left ankle) missed Thursday's game, although both could be available as early as tonight. And the Rays don't have ace David Price going in the series. They'll send rookie Wade Davis against Phil Hughes tonight, Matt Garza against Javier Vazquez on Saturday night and James Shields against CC Sabathia on Sunday.
Garza threw the first no-hitter in Rays history Monday night against the Tigers.