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The biggest tests facing the Yankees in the second half

The Yankees finished the first half with the best record in the American League. What will be the most important games or series over the next few months?

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have had two nearly identical first halves over the last two seasons, yet are in an extremely different situation at the All-Star break. Last year, the division-leading Red Sox were three games ahead of the Yankees in the loss column and six games ahead in the win column; this year is the polar opposite. The Yankees currently hold a 6.5-game division lead and a nine-game lead over the Red Sox.

In 2018, however, the Yankees’ second half wasn’t nearly as good as their first as they had a .567 winning percentage, a .086 difference from the first half. This year, the Yankees have an upgraded lineup, and an upgraded bullpen. They will most likely be upgrading their starting rotation, are expected to get their ace and their best reliever back from injury, and are sitting comfortably in first place. Here’s a look at the important games coming up on the Yankees’ schedule as we move into the second half of the season.

Tampa Bay: July 15-18

After a three-game set with the Blue Jays to open the second half, the Yankees will welcome Tampa Bay to the stadium for a four-game series. The Yankees and Rays just split a four-game series to end the first half so nobody gained or lost any ground there. If the Rays come away with the series win, they’ll find themselves right back in the division race, whereas if the Yankees win it, they’ll most likely have given themselves around an eight-game lead. Of course, this is all dependent on the first series of the second half. If the Yankees get swept and the Rays sweep before they play each other, we’re looking at a very different situation. Either way this series could define the way the rest of the season goes for these two teams.

The Rivalry: 11 games against the Red Sox

No matter what the division standings say, both fan bases and both teams will get up for these games. With a nine-game lead over the Red Sox, it will take a large fall from the Bombers and a big climb from their rival to make any of these games mean something in the standings. Most Yankee fans probably haven’t given the Red Sox much thought this year as they are 6-1 against them so far and haven’t been nearly as competitive otherwise anyway. It isn’t over for the Red Sox just yet though. The All-Star break can alter a team’s mindset and this team, while a little stronger in the bullpen, won the World Series last year. With MVP winners and candidates like Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez in their lineup, it’s never safe to count them out.

Twins: July 22-24

The Twins have surprised MLB this year taking over the AL Central and setting a record pace for total home runs hit. Statistically, they might have the best offense in baseball as they’re tied for first with the most runs scored (509), and the highest team batting average (.272). They also have the most RBI (489), the highest team OPS (.833) and the second-most hits (861). The Yankees have always seemed to have the Twins’ number, especially in the playoffs. Back in May, the Yankees beat Minnesota in a three-game set, but the series later this month may be a better gauge as to which team is in a better spot. In the end, as long as the standings hold, this has the potential to be an ALCS matchup in the future.

Dodgers: August 23-25

Speaking of future matchups in the postseason, the Yankees fly out to Los Angeles in August to match up with the Dodgers who finished the first half with the best record in baseball. The first-half power rankings dictate that these were the two best teams in baseball heading into the All-Star break and if things stay that way, we could see these two meet up in the World Series.