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Series Preview: Yankees at Rays

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American League Wild Card Standings

Oakland 76 57 .571 0 Won 3
Baltimore 74 59 .556 2 Won 1
Tampa Bay 73 61 .544 3.5 Won 2
Detroit 72 61 .541 4 Won 3
Los Angeles 71 63 .529 5.5 Lost 1
Seattle 65 70 .481 12 Won 1
Boston 62 73 .459 15 Lost 6
Kansas City 60 73 .451 16 Won 1
Toronto 60 73 .451 16 Lost 2
Cleveland 56 78 .417 20.5 Lost 1
Minnesota 55 79 .410 21.5 Lost 1

(updated 9.3.2012 at 7:55 AM EDT)

AL East Standings

New York 76 57 .571 0 Lost 1
Baltimore 74 59 .556 2 Won 1
Tampa Bay 73 61 .544 3.5 Lost 2
Boston 62 73 .459 15 Lost 6
Toronto 60 73 .451 16 Lost 2

(updated 9.3.2012 at 7:56 AM EDT)

The importance of this series cannot be overstated. The Rays simply must win this home series if they have any hopes of winning the American League East. The problem is, the team has won just six of its last 11 home series and have done themselves no favors by dropping four games in the past ten days by scores of 1-0, 1-0, 2-0, and 2-1. That swing has allowed the Rays, the Orioles, and Athletics to change spots in the standings while the Tigers and Angels have also gotten red hot.

Think back to July 18th when the AL East standings were as such:

NYY: 57-34

BAL: 47-44, 10 games back

TB: 47-45, 10.5 games back

since then:

BAL: 27-15

TB: 26-16, 1 game back

NY: 19-23, 8 games back

Now, the Rays, the Yankees, and the Orioles are all separated by just 3.5 games. A successful series and some help from Toronto this week could make things even more interesting.

The Rays have had their ups and downs in recent weeks, but the Yankees have been right there with them. Alex Rodriguez likely returns today to join a lineup that has sorely missed him as well as Mark Teixeira who will likely not play in this series. Over the past 30 days, here are how the two teams have fared offensively:

Rays 8% 22% .169 .267 .325 .436 .329 111
Yanks 8% 19% .166 .252 .318 .418 .318 96

Did you ever think you would see a period of time where the Rays were being more productive than the Yankees? The usual suspects of Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, and Derek Jeter continue to be productive but the Yankees hottest hitter in terms of wOBA has been Eric Chavez? Chavez has remained healthy enough to hit .355/.394/.532 in the past 30 days with a .399 wOBA which has somewhat helped lessen the blow of losing both Rodriguez and Teixeira. Ichiro Suzuki has been league average since coming over from Seattle and has improved the outfield defense.

The last time these two teams got together, the Yankees were extremely aggressive on the basepaths but that has not been the case in recent weeks as the club has just nine stolen based in recent weeks and two of those belong to Jayson Nix. In that same time period, the Rays have 23 stolen bases as Desmond Jennings, Sam Fuld, and B.J. Upton each have at least five stolen bases.

The Yankees have aligned their rotation so that both CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda pitch in this series with Freddy Garcia taking a turn in between them while the Rays counter with James Shields, Alex Cobb, and Matt Moore in that order. In terms of team effort, the Rays have the recent edge in pitching as the Rays have a 3.41 team FIP in the past month while the Yankees are at a 4.09 mark.

Sabathia was sharp in the mouth of August working into the 7th inning in each of his four starts while striking out 34 and walking just three batters in 30 innings of work. Kuroda had a string of eight consecutive quality starts ended by the Orioles on Friday night, mainly by Mark Reynolds who took him deep twice. For whatever reason, Garcia has had a fair amount of success against the Rays throughout his career as only Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton have hit a home run against him and he has allowed just six extra base hits in 128 plate appearances against players currently on the Tampa Bay roster.

It is getting tougher to avoid scoreboard watching as this season wears on. As the Rays battle the Yankees, the Angels travel to Oakland for a series while the Orioles take over the Rays' hotel rooms in Toronto for a three-game set. The limping White Sox are set to host the Twins while the Tigers get to host what is left of an awful Indians team.