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Yankees vs. Rays series preview: First homestand of the season

The Yankees open up their home schedule with a series against the Rays.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball returned last week, which is a great development. Virtually every other development, at least regarding the Yankees, was less than great. They return home from their first road trip having dropped series to the Rays and Orioles.

The Yankees will open up their home schedule today versus Tampa Bay. They will do so already having suffered some concerning injuries. Greg Bird has missed time with an ankle issue and sickness, while Gary Sanchez has been placed on the disabled list with a biceps strain. Austin Romine will get playing time in his stead, as will the newest call-up Kyle Higashioka, who put up a .847 OPS across Double-A and Triple-A last year.

The Rays enter after a strong first week, posting a 5-2 record that included a pair of victories against the Yankees. Tampa’s hitters got off to a quality start, running a 124 wRC+ over the first week, while their pitchers maintained a 3.18 ERA. The Yankees posted a 114 wRC+ during the first week, along with a 4.14 ERA.

The home opener will feature a rematch from the third game of the season, Michael Pineda versus Alex Cobb. Pineda appeared in mid-season form in his season debut, striking out six and walking none, but lasting only 3.2 innings and yielding four runs. Pineda was able to generate swings and misses with his slider, but the Rays tattooed his fastball for seven hits. The Yankees will have to hope Pineda’s two-pitch mix will fare better against Tampa this time around.

Cobb struggled in 2016 as he returned from Tommy John surgery, and his outing against the Yankees (5.2 innings, one run) might have been his best start since 2014. Cobb is a groundball pitcher who relies on a sinker to generate grounders and a split-change to induce whiffs. The Yankees appeared to have difficulty with the change last week, swinging and missing seven times against it.

The Yankees will have a day off after the home opener, returning for a matchup between talented young starters on Wednesday. Luis Severino will toe the rubber for New York, coming off a somewhat promising start in Baltimore that was marred by a three-run homer by Manny Machado. Severino sat 96 mph on his fastball according to Baseball Savant, and struck out six while walking just one, so there were positive signs to work off of as he makes his second start.

Blake Snell will oppose Severino. Snell is a talented, 24-year-old lefty who was a consensus top-25 prospect prior to 2016. He has a 3.67 ERA and 3.56 FIP in 96 career innings, though he struggled with command in his first start of 2017. Snell sits 94 mph with a solid change and slider, and should be a decent challenge for the Yankee lineup.

The series finale on Thursday is slated to feature Masahiro Tanaka versus Matt Andriese. Tanaka got back on track against the Orioles on Saturday, but still didn’t look quite himself. He has walked six batters and hit two more with a pitch in 7.2 innings this year, uncharacteristic of a pitcher who typically exhibits excellent command. His fastball did flash to 96-97 mph in his most recent start, a good sign that nothing is wrong physically, but the Yankees need their ace to bounce all the way back soon.

The baseball season is a long one, and it can be easy to lose sight of that when a team struggles out of the gate. The Yankees aren’t in danger of seeing their playoff hopes slip away even if they struggle during this opening homestand. Even so, these games matter, and the Yankees will want to avoid digging themselves another early hole the way they did last season. A series win against a division rival would be a good way to right the ship.