The two best teams in baseball are back at it two weeks after the Yankees (65-36, 1st place in the AL East, 2 games up) took two of three (including an emotional win in the first game back at the Stadium after The Boss's and Bob Shepard's passings) from the Rays (63-38, 2nd place in the AL East, 2 GB) as they play a three-game set in Tampa Bay beginning tonight. The teams have split the eight games they've played thus far, no surprise given how evenly both sides match up.
Tampa Bay comes into the series like a house on fire, having won its last 8,000 games. OK, that's obviously an exaggeration, but they are riding a six-game winning streak and also managed to cut a game off the Yanks' lead in the process, so, similar to two weeks ago, a sweep by Tampa would land the Rays in first place.
In tonight's game Phil Hughes (4.04 ERA; 4.00 FIP; 4.13 xFIP) looks to continue to improve as he squares off against Wade Davis (4.32 ERA; 5.33 FIP; 4.97 xFIP). Hughes has had a rough month of July (5.79 ERA; 6.37 FIP; 4.87 xFIP) and really hasn't been very good since mid-May. We're entering uncharted waters with Phil as far as his innings go, and hopefully he can finish the year out strong. Davis has been the Rays' most disappointing starter, though he has significantly outpitched his peripherals in July (3.16 ERA; 5.65 FIP; 4.81 xFIP). He also has a propensity to give up the longball (his 1.50 HR/9 is the fourth-worst mark among qualified starters. Third-worst? Home Run Javy). If Hughes can keep it together I like the Yanks in this one.
The Saturday night game finds Javier Vazquez (4.54 ERA;4.93 FIP; 4.63 xFIP) facing Matt Garza (4.06 ERA; 4.52 FIP; 4.45 xFIP), fresh off a no-hitter. Vazquez has had a strong July, pitching to a 2.77 ERA, while Garza -- despite the no-hitter -- sports a significantly less-impressive 3.96 mark on the month. Javy got lit up in his first start of the year on the road against Tampa Bay; hopefully he's learned from that experience and can continue rolling, especially with the uncertainty from the #3 and #4 spots in the rotation. It seems that Garza can either be great or just OK; although the same could probably be said of Vazquez too. A pretty big toss-up, but I like the Yankees in this one as well.
The Sunday finale is a rematch of the first post-All Star break game, with CC Sabathia (3.15 ERA; 3.61 FIP; 3.91 xFIP) taking on James Shields (4.79 ERA; 4.20 FIP; 3.69 xFIP). Sabathia had another terrific month in July, pitching to a 2.30 ERA, although he hasn't been his typical sharp self in his three post-ASB outings, giving up four earned runs in each. Shields was pretty consistent in July, giving 6 to 6 2/3 innings per start and giving up between two to four runs in all five of his outings. This should be another good one and could well be decided by the bullpen. Although if CC is ready to start rolling again the Rays could be in trouble.
Here are the two teams' offense and pitching numbers:
Not a ton has changed since these teams squared off two weeks ago, although the Yankees' overall pitching numbers have declined just a touch. The Yankees still have the superior offense, although as we've seen firsthand the Rays aren't exactly slouches with the stick themselves.
This series, like they often do, will come down to pitching. As mentioned in the pitching match-ups, I think the Yankees have a slight edge, and should be able to take two of three. Of course, Tampa being the second-best team in baseball and all means they could easily take two of three themselves. I would be surprised if either team swept.
Photo c/o The AP