Cedric Mullins has emerged a franchise cornerstone for the Baltimore Orioles, who begin a three-game series against the host Tampa Bay Rays on Friday.
The 26-year-old leadoff hitter is batting a team-high .323 with nine homers, 19 RBIs and nine stolen bases while playing stellar defense in centerfield.
Now in his fourth season with the Orioles, Mullins leads the American League with 76 hits and is 18-for-36 during his current nine-game hitting streak.
"Every time the guy goes up to the plate, you're expecting something to happen, or every time a ball's hit in the gap in the outfield, you're expecting him to make an amazing play," pitcher Bruce Zimmermann said. "As a teammate, it's just a lot of fun, and all the other guys feed off that clearly."
Mullins will look to continue his hot streak against Tampa Bay, which has won 20 of its last 25 games and owns the AL's best record at 39-24.
The Rays' three-game winning streak was snapped on Wednesday, when they battled back from an early deficit against Washington before losing 9-7 in 11 innings.
"It's encouraging to see us score runs like that and battle back," infielder Joey Wendle said. "I don't think there's anything we look back at that game with huge regret. I think we got beat. It just was one of those, especially toward the end, back and forth. We were on the wrong end of it."
Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz has hit safely in six straight games, going 9-for-22 with five RBIs.
Tampa Bay starter Ryan Yarbrough (3-3, 3.95) is taking the mound for the first time since recording the Rays' first complete game since May 2016.
The 29-year-old left-hander also ended his own 24-start winless skid with the dominant performance against the New York Yankees last Thursday. Yarbrough gave up two runs and six hits, walked none and struck out six while throwing a career-high 113 pitches.
Trey Mancini is 5-for-17 with two homers and six RBIs against Yarbrough, who is 3-1 with a 3.40 ERA in nine career games (four starts) versus Baltimore.
Baltimore counters with left-hander Keegan Akin (0-0, 3.60), who allowed three hits over five scoreless innings against Cleveland last Friday.
The 26-year-old is set to make his third start of the season following four relief appearances. He faced Tampa Bay as a reliever on May 20, giving up two runs on five hits over three innings.
In two relief outings against the Rays, Akin has a 5.40 ERA over 3 1/3 innings.
The Orioles have opened the month by winning five of their first seven games after going 5-23 in May.
One key factor has been the play of rookie infielder/outfielder Ryan Mountcastle, who extended his hitting and RBI streaks to eight consecutive games in Wednesday's 14-1 loss to the New York Mets.
Mountcastle was named AL player of the week on Monday after batting .458 with four home runs, three doubles, seven runs scored and 10 RBIs in six games.
The Orioles have also received a spark from third baseman Maikel Franco, who has recorded multiple hits in three straight games and four of his past six.
Tampa Bay swept a three-game series against Baltimore on May 18-20, outscoring the Orioles by a 32-14 margin.
--Field Level Media