The Yankees (87-56) head down to Tampa (86-56) tonight for their fifth set of the season with the Rays, who they have gone 5-6 against thus far in 2010 and hold a scant 1/2 game lead over for first place in the AL East. This also marks a second straight series against a potential playoff opponent, as many Yankee pundits -- myself included -- expect the Yankees and the Rays to ultimately square off in the American League Championship Series next month.
It's obviously been a tough week for the Yankees, coming off a sweep at the hands of the Rangers that put the exclamation point on what was likely the ugliest stretch of baseball we've seen from the team all season. The media will be hyping the heck out of both this week's and next week's showdowns with Tampa Bay, and while the games are important, they're not quite as big a deal as some people will have you believe. Sure, it'd be nice to see the Yankees turn things around, especially against their division rival who they may have to face in the postseason, but even if they only win one of three this week they'll only be a half-game out of first. I know a lot of fans would like to see the Yankees secure the division -- myself included -- but ultimately as long as they make the playoffs (which they will) that's all that matters.
Home field advantage in the postseason would certainly be helpful, especially given the team's rather wretched home-road splits (.283/.363/.472 at home vs. .255/.338/.405), but it's not crucial. The Yankees, after all, are a Major League Baseball team, and they have to be able to win road games to win a championship, regardless of what point in a given series those games are played.
The Yankees are 3-3 at the Trop this season, snatching two wins during the first weekend of the season in their first trip and going into one of their patented offensive comas during the second trip in late July. It goes without saying that these two teams are very evenly matched, having held the two best records in Major League Baseball for nearly the entire season.
In tonight's game we have a gem of a pitching matchup, as two of the top four pitchers in the AL East (in terms of fWAR) in CC Sabathia (3.14 ERA; 3.63 FIP; 3.86 xFIP) vs. David Price (2.87 ERA; 3.50 FIP; 4.02 xFIP) square off for the first time since October 2, which was Sabathia's last -- and probably worst -- start of the year last season. Sabathia's seen the Rays three times this season, nearly no-hitting them in his second start of the year, giving up three earned runs in a no-decision in the first game of the second half and going 6 2/3 while giving up three on August 1 when the Yanks couldn't do anything with Big Game James. Price has seen the Yankees twice in 2010, dominating them in his first start of the year to the tune of 7 2/3 innings and three runs, and getting beat up back on July 18 for seven runs in five innings. Both men have of course been phenomenal overall this season, and pitched as well as one could hope for during the last 30 days (Sabathia: 3.14 ERA; Price: 3.00), so this one is really anyone's guess. I could see this game coming down to one bad pitch.
In the second game Ivan Nova (3.32 ERA; 4.26 FIP; 3.97 xFIP) looks to continue his nice little run against Matt Garza (3.69 ERA; 4.45 FIP; 4.48 xFIP). The Yankees have won three of Nova's four starts thus far, and though he hasn't been allowed to go particularly deep, he's done an excellent job of keeping the team in the game in his outings. Garza's only seen the Yanks once this year, and pitched well (7 IP, 4 ER) in a tough loss for the Rays on July 31. Nova's held his own against some pretty tough offenses thus far -- the Blue Jays twice, the White Sox -- so hopefully he can keep the Rays at bay.
The finale has Phil Hughes (4.29 ERA; 4.24 FIP; 4.36 xFIP), coming off a 10-day layoff, facing James Shields (4.98 ERA; 4.32 FIP; 3.71 xFIP). By now we're all familiar with the story of Hughes' season -- began in dominant fashion, started to tail off in late-May/June, got better in late July/early August and then came undone again in his last three starts, in which he's given up 13 earned runs in 14 2/3 innings, while being very uneconomical in doing so. The hope here is that a little rest will cure whatever ails Phil, but having surpassed all previous innings pitched highs, we're in a bit of uncharted waters with Hughes, and from here on out I don't think anyone knows quite what to expect from young Franchise the rest of the way. His need to develop a strong third pitch (cough, changeup, cough) so he can actually put hitters away with two strikes has been flogged to death by every writer under the sun, though at this point we may be waiting until next year until he's able to morph more fully into the complete pitcher that he almost certainly will become.
Shields has faced the Yankees four times this season, and is 2-0, the last victory a game in which Big Game utterly and completely dominated the Bombers to the tune of 7 1/3 innings of shutout ball. Shields has also had a bit of a rougher go of it of late, posting a 4.97 ERA (though a 3.17 FIP) during the past 30 days, but he's still plenty capable of shutting the Yankees down considering he possesses Yankee Kryptonite, a changeup that ranks 9.3 runs above average, good for 9th-best in the AL.
Here are the two teams' offense and pitching numbers:
As with Texas, these are two very evenly matched teams, with the Yankees having a slight edge on offense. As a group, the Rays' starters have been superior, while the two teams' bullpens have put up nearly identical numbers. The Rays actually hit slightly better on the road, but of course pitch quite a bit better at home (3.49 ERA over 4.21).
This is going to be a tough three-game set for a Yankee team that has certainly had its share of difficulties of late, but make no mistake, this is still a very good Yankee team that really hasn't played at full strength for much of the second half. Based on the pitching match-ups, I do unfortunately expect the Rays to take two of three this week, but the Yankees are certainly capable of winning two themselves. The wild card for the Yanks will likely be Hughes, who will hopefully benefit from the extra rest, though last time he had an extended period of time between starts he was pretty bad, so we'll see how young Franchise adjusts.