The Yanks are ahead slightly in the standings, but the Rays are gunning hard.
All games are 7:10 PM start.
It doesn't get much better than this. The Rays are currently a half game out of first place in the AL East and would be able to recapture the lead with a series victory. Both teams have been slumping a bit in September: the Yankees have only won four of their last ten games, while the Rays have done little better. The issue for the Rays has been inconsistent pitching; for the Yankees, it's been a combination of poor pitching and some small, nagging injuries. Nick Swisher has been playing through knee issues, Jorge Posada missed some games with "concussion-like symptoms", Brett Gardner has a sore wrist, and Andy Pettitte is on the disabled list with a groin injury. Injuries happen to all teams, and it just so happens that they're hitting the Yankees now.
Outside of Sabathia, the Yankees' rotation is questionable. As mentioned above, Pettitte is still on the disabled list, so rookie Ivan Nova has been filling in for him. AJ Burnett has shown signs of improvement recently, but he's walking nearly five batters per nine over the last month. Javier Vazquez just got moved to the bullpen. And Phil Hughes 5.86 ERA / 5.84 FIP over the last month, and has been decidedly below-average since the All-Star Break.
The pitching match-ups favor the Rays this series, although tonight's game promises to be hard-fought. Price and Sabathia are two of the best left-handed starters in the majors, making tonight's game a must-watch, but don't let anyone convince you that this game "decides the Cy Young award". Despite their impressive win totals, Sabathia and Price have stiff competition from Felix Hernandez and Francisco Liriano.
Keys to the Series:
- Take Advantage of Nova and Hughes. Ivan Nova has been effective for the Yankees in four games started, but he's nothing too special. He's succeeded by limiting walks (2.19 BB/9), striking out a handful of batters (6.20 K/9), and inducing groundballs (49%), but he's had a propensity for homeruns already (11.5% HR/FB). At any rate, he's no Sabathia or Pettitte, and the Rays should be able to get to him. The same goes for Hughes - after his blistering start to the season, he's cooled off recently and has struggled at times. If the Rays want to beat the Yanks, they've got two golden opportunities here.
- Shields, Not Yields. The Yankees are third in the majors in homeruns and Isolated Power, and Shields is second in the majors in homeruns allowed (kudos if you know who's ahead of him). The Rays should be able to hit Phil Hughes, but they'll need Shields to keep the Yankees at bay.
- Strong Bullpen. The Yankees still have a fearsome line-up and they're always a risk to score a ton of runs. If the Rays want to stop them, they need their best pitching to show up. Benoit and Soriano are going to get used hard, but now would be the time for Grant Balfour to regain his command and effectiveness.