The Yanks and Rays have played just one series so far, but in it the Yankees took the lead in the season series 2-1. That might not sound important, knowing that they’ll play 15 more times before the end of the season. Yet any advantage is at least somewhat important in the 2010 AL East. The Yanks and Rays appear to be the best teams in baseball right now, so head-to-head matchups mean even more. Neither team can do anything about what the other does for the other 144 games of the year, but they can make a difference during those 18 included in the unbalanced schedule.
Thankfully, the Yankees have played the Rays well in the past few years. Last year, even though the Rays underperformed to an extent and essentially fell out of the division race in August, the Yankees went 11-7 against them, despite losing two out of three in a meaningless series to close the season. Even in 2008, when the Rays won the AL East with 97 wins and the Yanks missed the playoffs, the Yanks won 11 of their 18 match-ups. Going back further than that gets into Tampa Bay’s cellar dwelling days, though, strangely, the Yanks had a losing record against them in 2005.
The Yanks’ current 2-1 edge over the Rays means that they’ll continue leading the season series even if they split the next two games. That record will hold for a bit, as they don’t meet again until July 16th. The biggest battles will likely have to wait until September, when the Yankees travel to St. Petersburg for three games from the 13th through the 15th, and then the Rays come to the Stadium for four starting on the 20th. Those could be the final stand for either team’s claim to the AL East title. For now, the Yanks will just try to stay above water.
Thankfully, they open the series with a pitching advantage. Other than his meltdown at Fenway, A.J. Burnett has been fantastic this season. Even when he doesn’t have everything working, as he didn’t Friday evening against the Twins, he’s still able to scrape together quality starts. In only two starts, both against the Sox, has he failed to pitch into the seventh inning, which has been a boon to the bullpen. Last time around Burnett pitched seven innings and held the Rays to two runs.
The Yankees hit Wade Davis well in his season debut, turning 11 baserunners into four runs in six innings. Since then Davis has been a bit better, and now has his ERA down to 3.38. His peripherals, however, do not match up. His FIP sits at 4.94 and his xFIP is 4.96, so it appears that he’s gotten a bit lucky. That’s easy to verify with a look at his strikeout rate, 6.08 per nine, against his walk rate, 4.73 per nine. Davis has walked as few as two batters twice, but both times that came against Oakland, not the most patient team in the league. Unsurprisingly, he walked four batters, his season highs, against the Yankees and Red Sox.
Where the Yanks might find a real advantage is tomorrow night. While facing James Shields is never an easy task, this is more about the Rays offense than their pitching. Against left-handers this year the Rays have hit .229/.309/.360, while against righties they’re .266/.342/.424. Andy Pettitte, tomorrow night’s scheduled starter, missed the series against the Rays the first time, though CC Sabathia had his way with them. While Shields could hold the Yankees’ offense in check, Pettitte could match him pitch-for-pitch.
When two teams as good as the Yanks and the Rays meet, it’s tough to set expectations. As the last three games have reminded us, anything can happen when two good teams battle for nine innings. All the Yanks have to do, though, is win one of these. That will keep them above water against an important division foe until the next time the two meet.