Series Preview: Yankees vs. Rays VI

A split this week would be a victory for David Price and the Rays given the ease of their remaining schedule relative to the Yankees'. (AP)

So, it turns out that the three-game set between these two teams in Florida last week didn't really mean much of anything in the big picture. The Yankees entered that series with a half game lead over the Rays in the AL East, lost two of three games on the road, and now, a week later, are again a half game up on the Rays in the East. What's more, all three of the games at the Trop last week were decided by one run, two of them in extra innings, and the cumulative score of the series was 12-11 Rays. All you can really glean from that is that these two teams are very well matched.

Starting tonight, the two teams meet up for the final time in the regular season with a four-game set in the Bronx. What are the odds that they split the four games and leave nothing decided come Friday morning? I'd say pretty good. Still, those three games last week had a compelling playoff atmosphere, and this series will culminate in a rematch of CC Sabathia and David Price, the two left-handed aces who dueled for eight scoreless innings in last week's opener. No matter what happens, this should be entertaining baseball, and a good look at a potential ALCS opponent (the Yankees will face all four of the Rays' likely postseason starters in this series, while throwing three of their own four in return).

As for the stakes, the division title is important primarily because with it comes home field advantage in the Division Series and likely the ALCS as well. The Yankees enter the series a half game up on the Rays, who themeselves have just a half-game lead on the Twins in the now three-way battle for the best record in the American League. Don' t be surprised if the Twins, who host the last-place Indians for a three game set this week while the Rays and Yankees set about bloodying each other, slip ahead in that race by Friday. Here, then, are the three team's remaining schedules for the season's final ten days:

Twins
@ DET x 3
@ KCR x 3
vs TOR x 4

Rays
vs SEA x 3
vs BAL x 3
@ KCR x 4

Yankees
vs BOS x 3
@ TOR x 3
@ BOS x 3

Unless the Red Sox roll over and play dead, the Yankees will be hard pressed to keep up with the Rays and Twins over the final ten days given the relative strength of their competition. That means the Yankees' best chance at the division title is to take at least three of the next four games from the Rays. That's a tall order to say the least.

Pitching matchups, analysis and Rays roster after after the jump . . .

Ivan Nova vs. Matt Garza (Monday, September 20, 7:05, YES)

Nova cruised through four innings against the Rays his last time out, then ran aground in the fifth, giving up four runs before he could get the third out with five of the eight batters he faced reaching via hits including a lead-off home run and an ensuing double. The line on Nova is now that he can't fool a lineup the third time through (the Rays' lineup turned over with the fourth batter of that inning, after the home run and double). Looking at his splits, batters hit .220/.289/.317 against him in their first plate appearance, .273/.267/.568 against him in their second (including four doubles and three home runs in 45 PA), and .381/.500/.429 against him in their third. The sample sizes are tiny, but clearly he needs to show he can pitch deep into games and turn lineups over multiple times. If he can't, he should still have a place in the postseason bullpen, but if he can, he still has a chance to steal Phil Hughes' spot in the postseason rotation.

As I mentioned last time, Garza is the A.J. Burnett of the Rays. After allowing zero or one runs in four straight starts, he has now allowed six runs in less than five innings in each of his last two. Home runs have been a large part of Garza's problem in those last two starts. The Red Sox hit four off him two turns ago, and the Yankees added two more last Tuesday, with Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez doing the honors. Garza also gave up a pair of homers to the Yankees at the end of July in his only previous start against them this season (Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira did the honors that night). Both of those starts came at the Trop. He hasn't faced the Yankees in the Bronx this year, though he dominated them in his last appearance at Yankee Stadium last year (7 IP, 5 H, 1 UER, 1 BB, 7 K).

Phil Hughes vs. James Shields (Tuesday, September 21, 7:05, Ch. 9)

Take away the two home runs lefty DH Dan Johnson hit off him in his last start and Hughes's line starts to sparkle: 6 2/3 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 K, but those two home runs plated four runs and handed Hughes the loss in his return from another skipped turn. He'll be on five-day's rest on Tuesday due to Thursday's off-day and desperate to prove he can keep the ball in the park after allowed five home runs in 12 2/3 innings over his last two starts, both losses.

Despite his recent struggles, Shields was nails against Hughes last Wednesday, and was a large part of the reason that Johnson's two two-run homers held up in that game. In his last two starts against the Yankees, both at the Trop, Shields has posted this line: 13 2/3 IP, 12 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 19 K. He was less dominant, but still sharp in two starts against them in the Bronx earlier in the season (13 1/3 IP, 12 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 4 BB, 12 K). He has started in every series between the two teams this season and has gone 2-0 with a 2.51 ERA and 36 Ks in 32 1/3 innings in his first five starts against the Yankees this season combined.

A.J. Burnett vs. Wade Davis (Wesdnesday, September 22, 7:05, YES/ESPN)

Burnett is on something close to a hot streak. Though he has a 4.50 ERA in September and the Yankees have split his four starts, he hasn't allowed a fourth run prior to the seventh inning all month. After opening September with a quality start win against the A's, he had a blown quality start (just three runs allowed through six innings, but a fourth allowed in the seventh) loss against the O's. He allowed just two runs in four innings in his next start, which was cut short by a rare Texas rain. He then turned in another quality start his last time out against Baltimore, this time surviving the seventh. The bad news is that in his last two starts against the Rays, both of them coming at home, he allowed ten runs in 8 2/3 innings.

After a rough start to his first full major league season (5-5, 5.03 ERA), Davis has gone 7-4 with a 3.66 ERA over his last 15 starts despite missing time with discomfort in his pitching shoulder in the middle of that stretch. In five starts since returning from the DL, Davis has gone 3-0 with a 3.19 ERA and some solid peripherals (7.8 K/9, 2.7 K/BB). He handled the Yankees well in the Bronx at the end of July (7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 6 K) and could be pitching his way into the Rays' postseason rotation given Jeff Niemann's struggles in the wake of concurrent shoulder issues.

CC Sabathia vs. David Price (Thursday, September 23, 7:05, YES/MLBN)

These two tossed eight scoreless innings at each other to open the last series between these two teams. No player reached third base during those eight innings as the two combined to allow just four walks and five singles in a combined 16 frames of work. They can't possibly do that again . . . can they?

Tampa Bay Rays

2010 Record: 86-56 (.606)
2010 Pythagorean Record: 86-56 (.606)

Manager: Joe Maddon
General Manager: Andrew Friedman

Home Ballpark: Tropicana Field

Bill James Park Indexes (2007-2009):
LH Avg-100, LH HR-91
RH Avg-95, RH HR-96

25-man roster:

1B - Carlos Peña (L)
2B - Ben Zobrist (S)
SS - Jason Bartlett (R)
3B - Even Longoria (R)
C - John Jaso (L)
RF - Matthew Joyce (L)
CF - B.J. Upton (R)
LF - Carl Crawford (L)
DH - Dan Johnson (L)

Bench:

L - Brad Hawpe (OF)
R - Rocco Baldelli (OF)
R - Sean Rodriguez (2B/OF)
L - Reid Brignac (IF)
S - Willy Aybar (IF)
R - Kelly Shoppach (C)
S - Dioner Navarro (C)
R - Desmond Jennings (OF)

Rotation:

L - David Price
R - Matt Garza
R - James Shields
R - Wade Davis
R - Jeff Niemann

Bullpen:

R - Rafael Soriano
R - Joaquin Benoit
R - Grant Balfour
R - Chad Qualls
R - Dan Wheeler
L - Randy Choate
R - Lance Cormier
R - Andy Sonnanstine
R - Jeremy Hellickson
L - Jake McGee

15-day DL:

OF - Gabe Kapler (sprained right ankle)
C - Jose Lobaton (bruised right foot)

60-day DL:

LHP - J.P. Howell (pending shoulder surgery)

Typical Lineup:

L - John Jaso (C)
S - Ben Zobrist (2B)
L - Carl Crawford (LF)
R - Evan Longoria (3B)
L - Matthew Joyce (RF)
L - Dan Johnson (DH)
L - Carlos Peña (1B)
R - B.J. Upton (CF)
R - Jason Bartlett (SS)

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