It’s September baseball: we’ve entered the home stretch of the regular season. With the division still within reach, every game is practically a must-win situation. As they welcome the Orioles to the Bronx, the Yankees have to play for the sweep to have any shot at catching the Rays in the division.
Good teams beat bad teams, which is exactly what the Rays have done against Baltimore, sweeping their last series and finishing 18-1 in the season series. Meanwhile, the Yankees are only 8-5 against the Orioles, which pretty well sums up the 6.5-game deficit in the division standings, and speaks volumes about the gulf in class between Tampa Bay and New York. With that in mind, let’s preview the pitching matchups for the upcoming series.
Friday: Néstor Cortes Jr. vs. John Means, 7:05 PM ET
Nasty Néstor has been nothing short of a revelation for the Yankees this season. If you had told me at the beginning of the season that Cortes would have the second-best ERA among Yankee starters ... well, I would have questioned your sanity. But that’s exactly what he’s achieved, and what’s so refreshing is the manner in which he’s done it. He’s a real throwback pitcher, effective thanks to his craftiness, deception, and command of five pitches rather than overpowering velocity or wipeout movement. In 16 appearances (eight starts), Cortes is 2-2 with a 2.77 ERA, 3.58 FIP, and 64 strikeouts in 61.2 innings.
John Means looked like a true breakout star to begin the season, culminating in his 12-strikeout no-hitter against the Mariners on May 5th. Unfortunately for Means, it has been downhill sledding since that high point. He missed a month-and-a-half to injury, saw his spin rates decline after the enforcement of the foreign substance ban, and has generally gotten shelled, pitching to a 5.34 ERA, 5.90 FIP, and 2.6 home runs per nine in 12 starts since May 19th. His overall numbers on the season are buoyed by his fantastic start, as in 20 appearances he is 5-6 with a 3.46 ERA, 4.56 FIP, and 104 strikeouts in 114.1 innings.
Saturday: Jordan Montgomery vs. Chris Ellis, 1:05 PM ET
Don’t look now, but Jordan Montgomery has firmly established himself as the Yankees’ second-best starter behind Gerrit Cole as well as a top-25 starter in MLB. He has allowed three runs or fewer in each of his last 11 starts, averaging over 5.1 innings per start in that stretch. Four of his five pitches are considered above-average by Statcast’s run value metric, and he has the confidence to throw each in any count. As he makes his 25th start, Montgomery is 5-5 with a 3.52 ERA, 3.61 FIP, and 126 strikeouts in 130.1 innigns.
Chris Ellis was acquired from the Rays after being acquired off waivers August 20th. Already with his sixth organization since being drafted in the third round of the 2014 MLB Draft, there’s a reason he has failed to stick with his former clubs. He gives up a ton of hard contact and won’t wow you with the stuff. He throws a 94 mph fastball almost half the time, a slider a third of the time, and mixes in an occasional curveball and changeup. That said, he appears to have found something this year, since in three appearances (two starts) between Tampa Bay and Baltimore, Ellis is 1-0 with a 3.09 ERA, 4.36 FIP, and 12 strikeouts in 11.2 innings.
Sunday: Corey Kluber vs. Keegan Akin, 1:05 PM ET
Things were going so well for Corey Kluber in his first MLB start back from injury ... until they weren’t. He tallied five strikeouts on an economical 35 pitches through his first three innings against the Angels. It all came unraveled in the 30-pitch fourth inning that culminated in a Jack Mayfield grand slam. It’s hard to know what to make of that outing. On one hand, he cruised through the first three frames. On the other, giving up a salami isn’t ideal, and it appeared the Angels hitters were identifying the break ball right out of his hand, making me wonder if he was tipping that pitch. Hopefully, we’ll get a clearer picture of where he’s at on Sunday. In 11 starts, Kluber is 4-3 with a 3.61 ERA, 3.86 FIP, and 61 strikeouts in 57.1 innings.
That game could be a high-scoring affair, as the Orioles send out Keegan Akin. Akin has struggled in the run suppression department, which tends to be a problem if you’re a pitcher. Interestingly, he has provided both feast and famine when facing the Yankees this season — in his first outing he gave up three runs on four hits in a 3.1 inning start, but then in his next outing he pitched three scoreless innings of one-hit relief. The Yankees will be hoping the former version arrives to the ballpark in the series finale. In 20 appearances (13 starts), Akin is 2-8 with a 6.90 ERA, 5.07 FIP, and 68 strikeouts in 75.2 innings.