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Series Preview: New York Yankees

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As a new feature here at DRaysBay, to get you all primed for the Rays' next opponent, I decided to do a series preview, to compliment my blogger interviews and Game Previews, just to generally set the table and inform you all (and myself) on the upcoming team and, generally, what is happening in their neck of the woods. I don't really have an idea on how I want to set this up, so I'll play it by ear, and whatever you finish reading at the end will be what I came up with. As usual, to save space on the front page, I have relegated this piece to after the jump.

The Enemy: New York Yankees

Yankees Record: 9-8, 3rd place in AL East (2 GB)

Series Location: Yankee Stadium, The Bronx-New York

All-time Series-The Rays won the season series 11-8 last season, though the Yankees lead the overall series 88-42, and are 47-17 at Yankee Stadium. The Rays' winning percentage against New York is their lowest against any AL team.

Series Dates:
Tuesday, April 24th, 7:05 (RAYS TV)
Wednesday, April 25th, 7:05 (RAYS TV)
Thursday, April 26th, 7:05 (FSN Florida)
-All games broadcast on the Rays Radio Network, and AM 1250 WHNZ.

Pitching Matchups

Tuesday
LH Scott Kazmir

RH Mike Mussina

Wednesday
RH Seth McClung

RH Chien-Ming Wang

Thursday
LH Mark Hendrickson

RH Shawn Chacon

Series History
The Rays have played New York 130 times through eight seasons, and this will be the two teams' first encounter this season, with the next one coming in a week on Wednesday and Thursday of next week at Tropicana Field. The Rays secured their first winning record in franchise history against New York last season, going 11-8 against New York, including 6-3 in the Bronx. It could have been worse for New York, however, as the Yankees swept the Rays in the two teams' final meeting last year Sept. 13-15 at Tropicana Field. Despite their success overall against New York, the Rays did not ever sweep the Yankees last season, going 4-1-1 in six series against the Bronx Bombers, winning all but one game in each of their four series wins. The Yankees had several lopsided wins last season against the Rays, winning 19-8 last April 18th, 20-11 on June 21st, and 17-3 on September 13th. As a result, the Yankees actually beat the Rays in runs scored in the season series, 130-115.

From 1998-2000, the two teams met only 12 times  a year in divisional play, as opposed to since then, when they have met 18 or 19 times a year. Still, the futility is evident no matter how many games we played, as New York won the inaugural season series 11-1, and has never looked back, compiling a mark of 80-31 from '98 thru 2004. They have had a few bright days in series history however. Their lone win against the 114-win 1998 Yankees was a 7-0 shutout by Tony Saunders, who toppled Andy Pettite in the contest. Yet, the Rays were still 1-17 against New York heading into a late season matchup in 1999 against New York at the Stadium. The Yankees had already clinched the AL East title, and were on their way to another World Series title, but the Rays scored a monumental accomplishment nonetheless, sweeping the Bronx Bombers on their home turf. In the final series of that season, the Rays ended up losing two games, however they closed out the season thanks in part to the first inside the park home run in Rays history from Randy Winn, who shot one into the gap and rounded the bases for a four-bagger in the fourth inning of of Yankees pitcher Jeff Juden.

The Rays recorded their second sweep of the Yanks in franchise history, their first at home, sweeping New York on Sept. 26-28, part of a 7-1 run to end the season against AL East big-wigs New York, Boston, and Toronto. The run likely saved then-manager Larry Rothschild's job, at least until the 14th game of the following season. The Rays went .500, 6-6, against New York that season.

The 2001 campaign was nothing to write home about, as the Rays mailed in a 6-13 record against the Yanks, though they did hand Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens two of his three losses. One of those losses came in the first game played in New York since the September 11th terrorist attacks took place, when Tanyon Sturtze and the Rays handed New York a 4-0 shutout loss in the Bronx. The Rays also won the final series of the season, though lost the last game 1-0 on a solo home run by Yankee Clay Bellinger off of Rays reliever Jesus Colome. The loss guaranteed the Rays of a 100 loss season in the last game, the first time the Rays had lost 100 games in franchise history.

The Rays continued to struggle against New York for the next three years, starting with the 4-0 loss in New York's home opener, witnessed by 55,771, to date the largest crowd, home or away, to see the Rays play in team history. The thing I remember about that game was a fan running onto the field and handing Derek Jeter a note at his shortstop position, a lady fan, by the way, before taking off toward the stands and being "taken care of" by security. Alas, there weren't many other entertaining games in the 2002-04 dates in the series, as the Rays went 14-42 in those three seasons, though we did get to see the Rays continue what was then the longest opening day winning streak in the major leagues, winning 8-3 against the Yankees in Japan in the first game of the MLB regular season. The nationally televised game was much better than the one in Tokyo the following day, an 11-1 blowout loss. The two games were witnessed by a combined 110,000 fans. The Rays also set some attendance marks of their own that season, as the home opener, also a win, 9-4, and a July 19th contest drew sellout crowds of 41,744 and 41,755, respectively, two of the four sellouts to date in team history.

Scouting Report-The Yankees come into the series having sports talk radio hosts and the local New York media in typical early season panic mode, raising speculation over whether this is finally the year for Boston to overtake the Yankees in the AL East, just like every year. Except, here are the facts. The Yankees have won 10 staright AL East division titles, second only to Atlanta in terms of current streaks. New York has won three world titles in that span, and has played in five world series'. Now, I'm not going to sit here and say New York is the undisputed AL East champion for now and ever. The fact is, they have no farm system. Name five prospects within the organization, right now. You can't. And the reason for that is because they have no farm system, like I said. I consider myself to have a decent level of knowledge on prospects, and I can only name a few Yankee prospects, Philip Hughes, Eric Duncan, Tyler Clippard, Greg Golson. And I just went to see their Class A Florida State League affiliate on Saturday night! Well, now that I think about it, I can name five, including Marcos Veccionacchi, and the only reason I remember him is because of his last name, not his play.

Boston has reformed itself in the last couple of years, drafting strongly and not, I repeat, not trading away their top prospects for a veteran player. This has still allowed them to go out on the major league market and acquire the veterans they need to compete, and even trade their surplus prospects once in awhile, like they did with Hanley Ramirez and Andy Marte this offseason. New York needs to start reforming itself like that soon, or the dynasty soon will crumble. But for now, it still has the undisputed best offense in major league baseball. Granted, they have their pitching issues, and when you have the New York Yankees counting on guys like Aaron Small and Chien-Ming Wang to come through for the rotation, they are getting weak. Still, Shawn Chacon is a decent back of the rotation starter, Carl Pavano will come around when he returns, I believe. Jaret Wright, can't help ya, and Wang, Ron Villone, former Ray Tanyon Sturtze, and Scott Proctor make me laugh, but I think that Mike Myers can be an effective LOOGY, and Kyle Farnsworth can set up for shutdown closer Mariano Rivera effectively if he can locate himself. I don't think the Yankees' pitching will ever come anywhere close to their hitting in terms of results, but I think they can be at least half-decent enough to propel the Yankees into the playoffs as AL East champions. The Bombers are just slow starters, and that is what the media fails to realize year in and year out, they will come around.

New York has won two straight games to rebound from a stretch against Minnesota, Toronto, and Baltimore in which they went 2-4. The Yanks took 2 of 3 from the Orioles by a combined score of 13-2 in the winning efforts, getting strong outings from Randy Johnson and Shawn Chacon. The Rays represent the fourth, fifth, and sixth games of a nine game homestand in the Bronx for the Yankees, though they hit the road next week to travel to Boston and St. Petersburg for quick two games series' and a weekend set in Arlington.

As far as stats go, the Yankees are fourth in the American League in runs scored, eight runs behind the first place Cleveland Indians at 114. They are a distant seventh in hits, ninth in doubles, seventh in the long ball, sixth in total bases, and seventh in walks. New York also has the third fewest strikeouts in the league. They are third in team batting average, second in team SLG%, and first in the AL, and MLB, by a good .022 points in team OBP.

Among individuals, new Yankee Johnny Damon has gotten off to a decent start for the Bronx Bombers, hitting .278/.346/.417 for New York. Gary Sheffield is absolutely on fire for New York, hitting .357/.403/.543. Among other hot hitters in New York's lineup is everyone's favorite Gold Glove (what a farce) shortstop Derek Jeter, who is hitting .375/.487/.625. Meanwhile, Robinson Cano is hitting a particularly empty .349, while Yankees slugger Jason Giambit leads the team with seven home runs while hitting .326/.530/.848 to start the season. In fact, the only Yankee who is not doing well is CF Bernie Williams, kept around purely for nostalgic purposes, who is hitting .244/.286/.267, then again, that isn't noticed too much when your teammates compile the most feared lineup of this millennium (hee hee, it is so fun to be living in the first six years of a 1000 year set, so you get to say big-sounding things like that).

On the mound, the Yankees have actually done very well. They have the second lowest ERA in the American League, have the second lowest hits given up, and have given up the least runs and earned runs in the AL. They have served up the fewest long balls, hit the second least batters, and walked the fourth least batters, though they have not been dominant, as they are only eighth in strikeouts.

As expected, Mike Mussina and Randy "Deadbeat Dad" Johnson have led the Yankees pitching staff, posting ERAs of 2.67 and 3.73, respectively. The bullpen has been fairly decent, if shaky and seemingly ready to collapse. Johnson barely has a sub-1 WHIP at 0.99, Rivera's is 1.13, and most of the bullpen is at 1.42 or higher. Johnson, however, has an impressive K:BB of 7.67, walking 0.86 every nine innings while k'ing 6.61. Similarly, Mussina's K:BB is at 3.83, and he has struck out 7.67 per nine innings and has walked 2 per nine. Never expected Mussina to have a better strikeout rate than Johnson, eh? Mo Rivera's K/9 is at 8.44, and, much to my surprise, Tanyon Sturtze was tops on the team at 9.64. Rivera has still not walked a batter.

What the stats showed me, much to my surprise, was that New York's pitching has actually outpaced the hitting when compared with the rest of the league. I don't expect this to keep up, of course, I think the pitching will be a bit worse, and the hitting will get a lot better, but New York puts it all together when it matters most, in September, something that the media just doesn't seem to get when they panic every year.

Series Outlook-The Rays are coming off of a sweep at the hands of the Texas Rangers in Arlington last weekend and have lost five of six dating back to the start of this road trip. They wrap up their Boston to Texas to New York road trip with this series before returning to Tropicana Field to take on the Boston Red Sox this weekend. So, think of it this way. The Rays play eight of their next 10 games against the Red Sox and Yankees. Joy. So with the Rays struggling, coming off of a sweep, and presumably, fatigued because of traveling, you'd expect me to render bad news for this series against New York, right? Especially considering the Yankees are already at home and got to kick back on a travel-free off day. Well, I hate to disappoint you Yankee fans reading this, but I fully expect the Rays to win two of three, and maybe even sweep New York.

I must be crazy, you say. Well, maybe I am, but consider the following. The Rays have been hot against the New York American League ball club over the past year, with their 11-8 record last season being evidence of that. And take a look at the Yankees starters in this series. The only strong one is Mike Mussina, and we send out our best pitcher, Scott Kazmir, to oppose him and cancel out any advantage New York may have, and so you can leave that one squarely on our hitters, and that is exactly where I want the game to be decided.

Then, check Wednesday's matchup. This one surely can't go in our favor, you say, we've got Seth McClung on the mound. Well, let me tell you a little something about Seth McClung. He is a competitor. You would be hard-pressed to find a harder worker on this team, hard-pressed to find a guy with better stuff and high velocity, and you would be hard-pressed to find a guy with more competitive fire on this team. And after the start to the season he has had, three poor starts in four outings and the fourth being a start against Kansas City, you know Seth is pissed with himself for letting Friday's game turn into a massacre. You know he reads what people are saying about him on the internet. Hell, I read what people are saying about him on the internet, and I get pissed. You wonder how he feels? And a Seth McClung with that much desire to win, that much competitive spirit, and that many nasty pitches is not a Seth McClung I want to face if I am a New York Yankee hitter. I fully expect Seth to go out and shut the Yankees down, to prove his doubters wrong, not because Joe Maddon threatened him with his job if he didn't (which never happened anyway), but because Seth McClung is a competitor and a guy who can motivate himself without any help. And it doesn't hurt that Chien-Ming Wang is on the mound for New York.

Now, Thursday's game is our potential weak spot. I feel confident that we can win the first two, but Thursday, I don't know. It will all depend on how well Mark Hendrickson comes back from injury. In his first start of the season, Lurch pitched a shocking complete game shutout in the third game of the season against the Baltimore Orioles. But then, he was sidelined for three starts due to "shoulder stiffness", and will be making only his second start today. How he responds is integral to determining the winner in this matchup, and since it is such a toss-up, I'm going to play it safe and put one in the win column for the Yankees, not necessarily this game, but I'm putting one there for the series, since we will probably lose at least one of these games. But don't be shocked if the Rays win all three.

Series Prediction-Rays take two of three