With only seven games left against each other this season, the Yankees and Rays will open a three-game series in Tampa on Monday night.
Considering just half a game separates them in the AL East standings, it’s safe to say that those seven contests will go a long way towards determining who will win the division, and who will be forced to settle for a wild card berth.
The two teams have just about evenly split this season series, with the Rays holding a slight 6-5 edge to this point. The Rays have a real opportunity to hurt the Yankees this weekend, though, as they should have the upper hand in all three pitching match-ups.
The first game of the series features a marquee pitching duel between two of the AL’s strongest Cy Young candidates — David Price and C.C. Sabathia. The two flame-throwing lefties will attempt to give their team an early lead in the series.
Although Sabathia has been one of the better pitchers in the AL over the past half-decade, many Rays hitters have had success when facing him. Evan Longoria is a career 5-for-14 with two home runs and five walks against the big lefty, and B.J. Upton is 8-for-24 with two bombs of his own. Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist all hit near .300 against Sabathia as well, and will look to drive up his pitch count early in the game.
Price, however, has dominated much of the Yankee lineup during his short professional career. Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher are the only Yankee regulars who hit better than .235 against Price, and Swisher may be unavailable thanks to a bone bruise on his left knee. Even Marcus Thames, who has hit .333 against left-handed pitching this season, has mustered just one hit against Price in nine at-bats.
In the middle game of the three-game series, the Rays will throw Matt Garza, while the Yankees will counter with rookie Ivan Nova. The Yankees’ decision to start Nova in such an important game should tell you all you need to know about their confidence in Javier Vazquez, who was recently demoted to the bullpen.
Garza has a reputation as a big-game pitcher, and has also had good success against many Yankees over the years. He’s just 1-3 lifetime against New York, but his 3.49 ERA suggests he deserves a better record. Just like against Price, both A-Rod and Swisher have hit Garza well, but few others in New York’s lineup will enjoy facing the right-hander.
Nova will be making his fifth career start on Tuesday, and has performed well against tough offensive clubs such as the White Sox and Blue Jays. Nova’s 2.92 ERA is also encouraging, but advanced statistics suggest it should be over a full run higher, and his 86.8% left-on-base percentage is unsustainable as well.
James Shields and Phil Hughes will face off in the series finale in a game that may dictate who leaves the series with the lead in the division.
Shields, too, has been able to limit the current members of the Yankees offensive during his career. Only Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano hit against Shields particularly well, and four Yankee starters — Curtis Granderson, Jorge Posada, Mark Teixeira and Rodriguez — all have terrible stats against the veteran. Shields has been prone to the long-ball though, as he’s given up a career-high 32 homeruns in just 180 2/3 innings pitched.
Surprisingly, Hughes has made just three starts against the Rays in his young career, and has posted a solid but unspectacular ERA of 4.29. Rays first baseman Carlos Pena may be primed for a big night, as he has hit two home runs off of Hughes in just six at-bats. Hughes has pitched well as of late with the exception of when he faces the Blue Jays, a team that has rocked him for 11 earned runs over his last two starts against them.
If the Rays are serious about winning their second division title in franchise history, they’d be wise to take advantage of their veteran pitchers and their remaining games at home.
Because while it’s true that the two AL East heavyweights have four games remaining after this series, those games will be played under circumstances that the Rays are sure to find less favorable.
They’ll be played in New York.