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Tigers (51-48) At Rays (61-38)

(Sports Network) – The Detroit Tigers are hurting, both on the field and in the American League playoff race.

Faced with the prospect of their longest road losing streak in nearly five years, the battered and badly-struggling Tigers continue a four-game series with the formidable Tampa Bay Rays tonight at Tropicana Field.

Detroit lost for the ninth straight time as the visitor and suffered its 11th defeat in its last 14 overall contests with Tuesday’s 3-2 setback to Tampa Bay. That result followed up a 5-0 Rays’ victory on Monday in which Matt Garza threw the first no-hitter in franchise history.

The Tigers, playing without three key regulars in right fielder Magglio Ordonez (fractured right ankle), third baseman Brandon Inge (broken hand) and second baseman Carlos Guillen (calf strain), did manage 12 hits in last night’s contest but stranded 11 baserunners. The team has averaged a paltry 2.8 runs over the course of their rough 14-game stretch.

Tampa Bay, on the other hand, won for the fourth straight time and closed within two games of the New York Yankees for first place in the AL East with last night’s verdict. James Shields delivered 6 2/3 strong innings to lead the way for the Rays, while Matt Joyce snapped a 2-2 tie with a clutch RBI double with two outs in the bottom of the sixth.

Shields held the Tigers to two runs and struck out seven before giving way to the Tampa bullpen, with four relievers combining for 2 1/3 scoreless frames to protect the one-run edge.

“I felt I had good command of my stuff tonight,” said Shields afterward. “I had my fastball working and that sets up everything else.”

Detroit made it interesting in the top of the ninth, however, by loading the bases with one out against Rafael Soriano. The Rays closer got out of the jam, however, by getting Miguel Cabrera to hit into a game-ending double play.

“[Third baseman Evan] Longoria did a great job to help turn that double play,” Shields remarked. It was just a real good win for us."

Tigers ace Justin Verlander (12-6) went the distance in a losing cause, with the All-Star hurler allowing three runs on just five hits and striking out six.

Detroit dropped to four games behind first-place Chicago in the AL Central standings and is now a subpar 16-31 away from home. The nine straight road losses are the team’s most since a 10-game skid from September 16-October 2, 2005.

Spot starter Eddie Bonine will attempt to get Detroit back in a winning groove when he takes the mound tonight. The versatile right-hander has worked exclusively in middle relief this season, but is needed to begin this game with the Tigers’ rotation having been altered by a doubleheader this past Sunday.

Bonine has performed extremely well in his bullpen role, having generated a 4-0 record with a 2.72 earned run average in 31 appearances while holding opposing hitters to a .241 average. He’s made nine starts for Detroit over the previous two seasons and gone 3-2 with a 4.38 ERA in those contests.

The 29-year-old’s only previous encounter with the Rays came in relief, with Bonine tossing 1 2/3 scoreless innings in a matchup at Tropicana Field last September.

Jeff Niemann draws the assignment for Tampa Bay this evening and will be aiming to bounce back from a loss in his latest start. The towering right- hander allowed just two runs over five innings this past Friday at Cleveland, but was outdueled by the Indians’ Fausto Carmona in a rain-shortened 3-1 setback.

Niemann has come out on top more often than not in his second full major league season, as the former first-round draft pick has posted an 8-3 record along with a sound 2.95 ERA in 20 starts. The Rays are an impressive 15-5 in those games. The Rice product is just 3-2 in 10 Tropicana Field appearances this year, but owns a 2.44 ERA during that stretch.

Although the 27-year-old has yet to beat the Tigers over the course of his career, he’s surrendered only four runs in a combined 17 2/3 innings in two starts and one relief stint against Detroit. Niemann had a pair of no- decisions versus the Tigers last season, including a showdown in St. Petersburg in September in which he gave up one run while lasting 7 2/3 innings.

Detroit had prevailed in eight of their last 11 meetings with Tampa Bay prior to Garza’s no-hitter on Monday and swept a three-game set in their lone trip to Tropicana Field last season.