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Braves vs. Rays: Atlanta Begins Interleague Play In Tampa Bay Without Evan Longoria

Tommy Hanson makes the start on Friday night in a battle between two of the best teams in baseball.

ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 13: Starter Tommy Hanson #48 of the Atlanta Braves pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on May 13, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 13: Starter Tommy Hanson #48 of the Atlanta Braves pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on May 13, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Getty Images

The Braves are getting interleague play started early this season. Due to the unbalance schedule in interleague play, Atlanta gets to face the likes of the Rays, Yankees (TWICE!) and Red Sox. Teams in the NL Central get to feast on the Twins, Royals and the rest of the worst five-team division in baseball. That seems fair, but hey, the fans like it and it appears that cross-league play is here to stay.

The Rays are a very good team, although they have been hit hard by injuries this season. All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria is out with a torn hamstring and young outfielder Desmond Jennings is out with a knee sprain. Starting pitcher Jeff Niemann was originally scheduled to pitch on Saturday, but he hit the DL this past week after suffering a fractured fibula.

So who's healthy and playing for the Rays? Ben Zobrist has been the most underrated player in baseball for the last few seasons and continues to be phenomenal in Tampa Bay. He is hitting just .227 but an OPS of .859 for a second baseman is fantastic. Combine this with his defense and he truly is a great player for manager Don Maddon.

Speaking of Don Maddon, get ready for a ton of defensive shifts this weekend. The Rays love their advanced scouting and will put players all over the field in attempt to combat where the opposing hitters tend to hit the ball.

Matt Joyce is one of the more underrated sluggers in the game for the Rays and leads the team with seven homers. First baseman Carlos Pena is a bit older but can still hit for power. He may not be a big name, but Elliot Johnson has been amongst the hottest hitters in the game this past week. He has four steals and an OPS of 1.147 in what has been his first bit of extended playing time in 2012.

The Rays are one of the better offensive clubs in baseball, but the loss of Longoria and Jennings has been felt recently. They are still capable of scoring runs in a hurry, though, and have one of the higher team on-base percentages around.

Pitching Matchups & Start Times:

Friday, 7:10 p.m. ET - Tommy Hanson (4-3, 3.43 ERA, 3.91 FIP) vs. James Shields (6-1, 3.52 ERA, 4.18 FIP)

Saturday, 4:10 p.m. - Randall Delgado (2-3, 3.79 ERA, 3.69 FIP) vs. TBD

Sunday, 1:40 p.m. - Tim Hudson (2-1, 3.96 ERA, 3.17 FIP) vs. David Price (6-2, 3.10 ERA, 3.22 FIP)

Team Sites: Talking Chop; D-Rays Bay

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.