The Houston Astros have been the Yankees’ primary adversary in recent years, but another American League contender has been a big thorn on this team's side for some time. That irritant would be the two-time reigning AL East champs, the Tampa Bay Rays, who New York will play tonight for the first time since June 22nd. As the Yankees get set for a three-game series against their rivals from Florida, it’s time to switch things up and look from the opponent's perspective.
The Yankees are exceptionally well positioned to dethrone the Rays as AL East champs, and only a disastrous last month and a half would change that. That doesn't mean the regular season has no further goals for the Yanks. A battle with the Astros for the top seed in the AL is likely to go down to the wire, and home-field advantage through the American League playoffs would certainly be a big deal.
The point to be made, though, is that the sense of urgency is much higher on the Tampa Bay side of things. The Rays are battling four other teams (Orioles, Blue Jays, Twins/Guardians, and Mariners) for the three Wild Card spots in the AL.
Over roughly the next 30 days, the Yankees and Rays will face off for three separate three-game series. Not only will those showdowns have a tremendous impact on playoff seeding at the top of the league; they also may determine if the Rays make it back to the playoffs or not.
Under the new postseason format, the No. 1 seed is locked with an ALDS matchup against the winner of the No. 4 vs. No. 5 seed Wild Card round, and the No. 2 seed goes up against the winner of the No. 3 vs. No. 6 seed. This is purely speculative, but the number of games between these two teams may hold a disproportionate amount of influence over how these two teams have to navigate that bracket.
If the Yankees do exceptionally well in these games, that's a step closer to the top seed, as the Rays represent their most common opponent from now on, and one of their most challenging ones. For the Rays, it'd likely mean, at best, getting the sixth seed, with a strong chance that the Blue Jays and Mariners to take advantage of the opportunity if Tampa slips.
If the Rays utilize these nine games to re-establish themselves in the thick of the pennant chase by handing it to the Yankees, then that would mean the Astros are one step closer to the top seed in the AL. The Rays would then have a very good shot at either the fourth or the fifth seed in the American League.
There is nothing guaranteed for the Rays, with the Orioles playing shockingly good baseball as of late and the Guardians opening up the race for the AL Central. No team will be more influential in where Kevin Cash's men end up at season's end than the New York Yankees.
The Rays have had the upper hand as of late, coming off back-to-back AL East titles and a playoff series victory over the Yankees in 2020 en route to a World Series appearance, but in 2022 the script has flipped, and the Yanks have the chance to smash the Rays' hopes of a deep October run.
Nine games in a little under 30 days for these two ballclubs. It should be a thrilling set of encounters between these two AL contenders and rivals.