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O’s knock Rays out of first place for first time since March ahead of huge AL East battle

Baltimore is red-hot and Tampa is struggling a bit as the two teams get set for a four-game series this weekend.

Texas Rangers catcher Jonah Heim rounds the bases after hitting a three run home run against the Tampa Bay Rays in the eighth inning at Globe Life Field.  Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Once among the hottest teams in the history of baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays now find themselves in a dogfight for a division title. The Rays’ July swoon continued on Wednesday afternoon in a 5-1 loss to the Rangers, their fourth defeat in a row. They’re now just 3-11 this month, with a -18 run differential and among the worst offenses in the Majors.

That skid, combined with the Baltimore Orioles’ 8-5 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, means that the O’s technically occupy the top spot in the AL East due to a better winning percentage — the first time a team other than Tampa has led the division since late March, when the season was just a couple days old. The Rays had held an outright lead in the East since the end of games on April 1. They led by 6.5 games, tying their season high, as recently as July 1.

In the nearly three weeks since, Tampa has slumped badly. Their once-fearsome offense is averaging less than three runs per game this month, cracking the five-run mark just three times in 17 contests. That’s put way too much pressure on a pitching staff that’s dealt with injuries to starters Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen and Josh Fleming. (Even Cy Young candidate Shane McClanahan has dealt with some back soreness.)

The O’s, meanwhile, are red hot. Even with losing two of three to L.A., Baltimore is 10-5 on the month with a plus-27 run differential. Cedric Mullins is back on the IL, but Ryan Mountcastle has returned, forming a rock-solid offense along with stalwarts Adley Rutschman, Anthony Santander and first-time All-Star Austin Hays. The Orioles are also among the best hitting development orgs in the sport, with top young talents Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser already up in the Majors and several other promising position player prospects ready to join them from Triple-A. The rotation is, well, a question mark to put it mildly, but Tyler Wells and Kyle Bradish have been revelations and top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez looked good in his return to the bigs on Monday night — and besides, what are all those prospects good for if you’re not going to flip them in a trade?

As if all of that weren’t compelling enough, the standings swap comes just a day before these two teams are set to meet for a massive four-game set at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Here are the scheduled starters for each day:

Thursday, July 20: Kyle Gibson (BAL) vs. Tyler Glasnow (TB)

Friday, July 21: Kyle Bradish (BAL) vs. Zach Eflin (TB)

Saturday, July 22: Grayson Rodriguez (BAL) vs. Shane McClanahan (TB)

Sunday, July 23: Tyler Wells (BAL) vs. Taj Bradley (TB)

The Rays and Orioles have already played five times this season. Baltimore has prevailed in three of those contests, taking a three-game set at home in May and then splitting a two-game set in late June. The Rays do possess a slight edge in run advantage, having outscored the Orioles by three.