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Shields strikes out nine over seven scoreless

Both the Rays and the White Sox need to win and win now.

Tampa Bay's Wild Card hopes hang by a thread, trailing by three games, while Chicago sits a game behind Detroit in the American League Central standings.

The two clubs will open a four-game set Thursday at U.S. Cellular Field in a series that could very well make the blurry playoff picture a lot clearer.

The White Sox dominated the previous series against the Rays, sweeping them in St. Petersburg at the end of May, and figure to have an edge with the home crowd this time around. Chicago manager Robin Ventura said his team is ready this time around when it matters most.

"They're focused and ready to play," Ventura said about the final stretch. "Everybody in the big leagues is tired to an extent. This is fun, and you're at the end of the season with a chance to make the playoffs. If they're that tired that they can't play, they won't play."

James Shields will take the mound for the Rays as the winner of five of his last seven starts, during which he's allowed just 14 runs. He realizes the White Sox provide a different challenge.

"They've got a tough lineup over there," Shields said. "We just gotta keep doing what we're doing. Keep pitching and keep hitting, as long as we play some good defense and pitch and keep the team in the game. We gotta try and get some wins over there."

The righty, who earned his 200th strikeout of the season last time out, dominated the Blue Jays over seven innings without allowing a run. Toronto could only scratch six hits and a walk against him while striking out nine times.

Jake Peavy will take the mound for Chicago, but he hasn't been as fortunate as of late, losing three of his last five starts. He said he's still looking forward to the opportunity to take the mound.

"I'm excited about pitching [Thursday] night and getting prepared for a tough Tampa team," Peavy said. "Up against James Shields, runs are going to be at a premium, which most of our games runs are at a premium. We're going to see if we can keep them off the board and get it done."

Peavy was roughed up for five runs on eight hits, two walks and three strikeouts in five innings during his last start against the Angels

Rays: Fuld to return to lineup soon
Tampa Bay outfielder Sam Fuld strained his right hamstring after trying to beat out a grounder on Sept. 16, and though the rest of his season was in jeopardy, he says he's close to 100 percent.

He even felt so good that he was available to be used as a pinch-hitter during Wednesday's game with the Red Sox, though he probably wouldn't be able to run full speed.

"From all I've heard about hamstrings, when you really push, that's when your prone to aggravating it," Fuld said. "That's going to be the hardest part, is toning down your instincts and not letting the adrenaline of the game get a hold of you. ... It's going to be tough."

Fuld added that he hopes, on top of the baserunning and swinging drills he's already doing, that he can get some outfield practice to better prepare himself for game action.

White Sox: Sale lined up for crucial start
If Chicago can find its way back to the top of the division, Chris Sale, the club's steadiest performer, would be in line to pitch either a tiebreaker or the postseason opener.

He was originally scheduled to pitch in Sunday's series finale against the Rays, but was moved up to Saturday, and in doing so, would be ready to pitch the pivotal game if necessary.

Pitching coach Don Cooper ruled out Sale pitching on just three days' rest against the Indians in the regular-season finale, even if the playoffs are on the line.

Should the White Sox be in position to play a 163rd tiebreaker game or find themselves in the American League Division Series, they would like their chances with Sale, who is 17-7 with a 2.86 ERA.

Worth noting
• Rays catcher Jose Molina is day to day after straining his right quad while running to first base in Tuesday's game against the Red Sox. The team, which has three other catchers on the active roster, likely won't add another.

• The White Sox have won 13 of their last 20 home games and hold a 44-33 mark at U.S. Cellular Field, the fifth-best home record in the American League.

• Tampa Bay is riding a seven-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 55-17 in that stretch. Comments