The Yankees wrapped up the toughest stretch of their early-season schedule over the weekend, going 5-3 with a rain out in nine games against the Red Sox, Rangers, and Tigers. They woke up this morning 2.5 games out of first place after splitting the first two games of their three-game series with the Orioles, not an ideal position but hardly one worth getting worked up over on May 2nd. You can’t win a division title this early in the season, but the Yankees are in a position to improve their odds of winning a second straight AL East crown in a big way in the coming weeks.
The Rays announced yesterday that Evan Longoria will be out 6-8 weeks with a partially torn left hamstring, and injury he suffered running the bases on Monday night. Tampa Bay has a really, really good team, but it’s impossible for any club to replace a player of Longoria’s caliber. Joe Maddon & Co. will try to get by with in-house replacements like Jeff Keppinger, Elliot Johnson, and Will Rhymes for the time being. Longoria’s injury is obviously a major blow to a chief division rival.
Needless to say, the Yankees have a golden opportunity now. Not only will the Rays be without their best player for the next two months, but New York will also enjoy a rather cushy schedule. Only three of their next 27 games are against 2011 playoff teams — a three-game set in the Bronx against the Longoria-less Rays next week — and only nine of their next 55 games are against 2011 playoff clubs (including interleague play). That stretch takes them almost all the way to the All-Star break. It’s hard to ask for anything more.
Thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, winning the division is of the utmost importance now. The Yankees have a chance to pad their win total during what appears to be an easy stretch of the schedule while Tampa will have to try to survive without one of the game’s very best players. The two clubs are in very different situations, and there’s an opportunity for New York to create some separation between themselves and a primary AL East competitor over these next few weeks. The sooner the starting rotation sorts itself out and the Yankees can get on a roll, the better.