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New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Rays: Series Preview

The two best teams in the AL East square off for the first time in 2022.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have fielded some criticism for not having faced the toughest opposition so far this season, which I would answer with “nya nya best record in the AL.” Regardless, they’ll have their chance at one of the league’s other strong starters as they head to Hell Tropicana Field for a four-game set.

With the sluggish start of the Toronto Blue Jays, it looks for now like the competition atop the AL East comes down to the Tampa Bay Rays and Yankees, and the two teams are preparing to go head-to-head for the first time this season.

DraftKings series odds: Yankees win (+140); Rays win (+280); Tie (+150)

Thursday: Nestor Cortes vs Ryan Yarbrough (6:40 PM ET)

The Yankees do send some of their best to take on a deep Rays lineup, starting with Nasty Nestor. Sort MLB’s pitchers by virtually any stat — ERA, FIP, fWAR, K-BB% — and you’ll find Cortes in the Top 15 at worst, as the southpaw has taken baseball by storm and set up a dominant one-two pairing at the top of the rotation with Gerrit Cole. It’s up to your preference as to which guy is the nominal ace.

Cortes is coming off a start against the White Sox where he struck out seven batters against no walks, though he did give up a season-high three runs. Yes, three runs is his season-high, his worst start of the year. Any kind of bounce-back from the worst outing of the campaign should give the Yankees a good chance at winning.

The sometimes-starter/sometimes-”bulk guy” Yarbrough goes for option No. 1 in the series opener. He missed April with a groin injury and was throttled in Oakland during his season debut on May 3rd, but his past three outings have been better. In a combined 12.2 innings against Seattle, Toronto, and Baltimore, he has a 1.42 ERA, 2.73 FIP, and no homers allowed. Yarbrough is looking for a bounce-back season after getting roughed up in 155 innings and left off the roster for the Rays’ ALDS loss to Boston.

Friday: Jameson Taillon vs. Jeffrey Springs (7:10 PM ET)

If Nestor is the talk of baseball, Jameson Taillon is flying under the radar while being nearly as good. The right-hander is establishing career-bests in virtually every run-suppression metric, largely driven by the second-lowest walk rate in all of baseball. He’ll pound the zone, coming right at hitters, and that’s cut down on his strikeouts somewhat, but a 2.95 ERA and 3.24 FIP will play in any rotation.

Springs, 29, has split his time between the bullpen and the rotation to start the year, making his fifth start on Friday. Similar to Taillon, he doesn’t strike out as many hitters as you’d expect, but strong control over the strike zone has led to his 1.32 ERA and 2.39 FIP. The lefty relies heavily on a relatively slow, 91mph fastball around the edges of the zone.

Saturday: Gerrit Cole vs. Corey Kluber (4:10 PM ET)

The rotation resets on Saturday with Cole getting the ball. Since his disastrous start on April 19th against the Tigers, Cole’s been back to ace-level performance, with a 2.45 ERA, 1.98 FIP and stellar 28 percent K-BB%. The Rays have clawed back their strikeout rate compared to last year, fanning a combined 23.2 percent of the time, but if any pitcher can expose holes in your swing, it’s Gerrit Cole when he’s on.

The Yankees might have gotten the best of Kluber last year, as the veteran righty has struggled in his year with the Rays. A 4.42 ERA is bad enough, but a 5.33 xERA belies how hard the contact he’s allowed this season.

Sunday: Luis Severino vs. Shane McClanahan (1:40 PM ET)

It’s hard to believe that the guy with a 3.02 ERA is the “weak link” of the weekend, but that speaks more to the talent inherent in the club’s rotation than anything else. Severino’s been getting better and better each start this season, going deeper into games as well, combining for 13 innings, 12 strikeouts, a pair of walks and a single earned run in his last two outings.

This will be Sevy’s 11th career appearance against the Rays, a division foe he knows well. A 3.11 ERA over 66.1 innings could foretell good things in the Sunday afternoon matchup.

McClanahan, perhaps the nominal ace of the rotation, has certainly pitched like it so far this season. He’s increased his strikeouts and reduced his walks compared to a solid rookie campaign last year, and comes into the game with a 2.06 ERA and 2.53 FIP, and in particular has allowed just one earned run in his last three starts, so we get a battle of two red-hot arms.