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New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Rays: Series Preview

The Yankees host the AL East division winners for the final series of the regular season.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

The Yankees enter their final series of the season fighting tooth and nail in the AL Wild Card race. They just took two of three from the Blue Jays, gaining critical separation atop the WC standings. However, the first WC spot and home field advantage are still not decided, so there is plenty riding on these last three games. The Rays, on the other hand, wrapped up the division over a week ago, and recently secured the top overall seed in the AL. Be that as it may, I do not for one second expect them to roll over against a Yankees team they so love to hate.

Friday: Néstor Cortes Jr. vs. Shane McClanahan, 7:05 PM ET

Néstor Cortes Jr. is set to make his 14th start tonight. Nasty Néstor has far exceeded expectations this season, particularly as a regular in the rotation. In 13 starts, Cortes owns a 3.01 ERA across 68.2 innings. He has hit a bit of a bump in the road of late, with his last two outings arguably being his worst two starts of his season, both times managing only 4.1 innings. Still, I have all the confidence that he will bounce back and provide the Yankees with a solid outing in this crucial series opener. In 21 total appearances, Cortes is 2-2 with a 2.85 ERA, 3.77 FIP, and 98 strikeouts in 88.1 innings.

Cortes’ opponent in tonight’s game could not have a more divergent style. Whereas Cortes relies on varying speed, timing, and delivery, Shane McClanahan lets his wipeout stuff do the talking. The fourth-ranked Rays prospect routinely touches triple digits with his fastball and achieves a whiff rate of over 40 percent on each of the slider, curveball, and changeup. That said, the Yankees appear to have the recipe for success against the lefty fireballer, as they’ve tagged him for seven runs on 14 hits and five walks in two appearances spanning 9.1 innings. Across 24 starts overall, McClanahan is 10-6 with a 3.44 ERA, 3.35 FIP, and 138 strikeouts in 120.1 innings.

Saturday: Jordan Montgomery vs. Shane Baz, 1:05 PM ET

Jordan Montgomery gets a chance to put an exclamation mark on his best big league season to date, and one of the better seasons of any starting pitcher in baseball this year. Out of all starters with at least 150 innings pitched, Montgomery ranks fourth in soft contact rate, 19th in FIP, 21st in fWAR, 23rd in ERA, 24th in groundball rate, and 27th in K-BB rate. He owns the second-best changeup and is tied for the 10th-best curveball in baseball per Statcast’s Run Value leaderboard. The Yankees need him to maintain that level of performance as he enters Saturday’s contest at 6-6 with a 3.49 ERA, 3.42 FIP, and 159 strikeouts in 154.2 innings.

It looks like the lede for this series is something along the lines of “The Yankees vs. top prospects named Shane.” On Saturday afternoon, they get their first look at the Rays’ top overall prospect, Shane Baz. He has looked every bit of that top prospect billing in his first two starts. Memorably the PTBNL in the Chris Archer trade that also netted Tampa Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows (Pittsburgh ... you’re killin’ me), Baz hits the upper-90s with ease while also possessing a slider and changeup that get batters to whiff about half the time. Baz has pitched 10.2 innings across his first two big league starts, allowing two earned runs while striking out 14.

Sunday: TBA vs. Michael Wacha, 3:05 PM ET

The Yankees have not announced a starter for their regular season finale. On regular rest, this would be Jameson Taillon’s spot in the rotation, but it is unknown the next time he will be able to pitch after reaggravating his ankle injury in his last start against the Blue Jays.

They could roll out Gerrit Cole on short rest — a plan the Yankees’ ace is on board with — but that will depend on the results of the preceding two games. If Cole does get the nod, he’ll need to pick up his level of play. He’s given up 15 runs including five long balls in his last 17.2 innings of work across three starts — good for a 7.64 ERA and 5.54 FIP — which just isn’t gonna cut it for any starting pitcher let alone the highest compensated ace in baseball. He effectively torpedoed his Cy Young chances with the latest stinker against Toronto, but all that matters now is that he pitches the way he and the Yankees expect. In 30 starts, Cole is 16-8 with a 3.23 ERA, 2.91 FIP, and 243 strikeouts in 181.1 innings.

Whomever the Yankees hand the ball, his opponent will be Michael Wacha. The hefty righty has assembled a mediocre season in Tampa, bouncing between the rotation and bullpen. That said, he’s managed to dominate the Yankees in his four appearances against them this year — pitching to a 2.16 ERA, 3.04 FIP, and 0.840 WHIP in 16.2 innings, striking out 23 en route to a 27 percent K-BB%. The Yankees will hope for the Wacha that is more representative of his overall performance — that version is 3-5 in 28 games (22 starts), with a 5.26 ERA, 4.50 FIP, and 119 strikeouts in 119.2 innings.