Divisional rivals — not to mention the teams with the two best records in Major League Baseball — the Tampa Bay Rays (54-34, 2nd place in the AL East, 2 GB) and New York Yankees (56-32, 1st place in the AL East, 2 game lead) square off at Yankee Stadium in the first series of the second half. Last time the Rays came to New York they swept a brief two-game set and made the Yankees look pretty terrible in the process. Since then the Rays have fallen back to earth some while the Yankees have leapfrogged Tampa into first place. The Yanks will need to avoid a sweep to ensure they remain in first place, a perch they have held since June 13.
CC Sabathia (3.09 ERA; 3.75 FIP; 3.86 xFIP) gets James Shields (4.87 ERA; 4.11 FIP; 3.55 xFIP) in tonight’s game, in what should be a great one. Shields has faced the Yankees twice this season and gave up 2 runs over 5 1/3 innings in a game the Rays ended up losing, and three earned runs in 7 1/3 innings in a win on May 20. Sabathia only has one outing against the Rays this year, but boy was it a doozey — a near no-no back at the beginning of the season. Given the ridiculous way Sabathia’s been pitching of late (1.38 ERA and 2.63 FIP over the last 30 days), hopefully he can keep the Rays’ bats quiet once again.
On Saturday A.J. Burnett (4.75 ERA; 4.73 FIP; 4.72 xFIP) takes on Jeff Niemann (2.77 ERA; 4.21 FIP; 4.25 xFIP). Niemann — who is significantly outperforming his peripherals — hasn’t seen the Yanks yet this year, while Burnett has one good and one bad start against the Rays. Burnett’s been good his last two times out; would love to see him continue to build on that momentum. I’m not really sure what to expect from Niemann, as I haven’t seen him pitch all that much. This game’s probably a push, unless Burnett decides to become terrible again.
And Andy Pettitte (2.70 ERA; 3.82 FIP; 4.00 xFIP) faces fellow AL All-Star David Price (2.42 ERA; 3.59 FIP; 3.95 xFIP) in the finale. Price faced the Yankees back at the beginning of the year and won, throwing 7 2/3 innings of three-run ball. As great As Andy’s been this year, Price has been even better, and has shown no signs of slowing down — he boasts a 2.86 ERA and 2.71 FIP over the last 30 days. This one is probably the best pure pitching match-up of the weekend, although all three games should in theory feature excellent pitching.
Not too much has changed — the Yankees are still the superior offensive team, while the Rays are just a tick better overall on the pitching side of the equation, although it’s pretty close — except for the fact that the Rays’ pitching has faltered just a bit since mid-May. The team ERA is up nearly a full run since these two teams last squared off, although this isn’t surprising; there was no way Tampa was going to throw to a 2.69 ERA over a full season in the American League.
Yankee pitching has actually gotten better since the two-game set in mid-May, with improvements in all eight of the above listed pitching categories. The Yankee offense, however, has faltered since then — crazy to think that the Yankees had a .365 team wOBA last time they faced the Rays. Unlike the Yankees, the Rays have actually added .010 points of wOBA, so both teams have experienced slippage in areas that have been major strengths.
This will probably be one of the hardest series of the year to predict — if the pitching match-ups weren’t even enough, it’s difficult to know how either team will react to four days off. Last year the Yankees came out of the break like a team possessed, sweeping the Tigers at home en route to an eight-game winning streak, and ultimately going on an absurd 23-7 run into mid-August.
It’s tough to envision either team completing a sweep, although it goes without saying that the Yankees need to beat up on their AL East foes every opportunity they get. Taking two of three would be a nice way of telling the Rays to politely get the heck out of the Yankees’ house, especially since they seemed more than comfortable in the Bronx back in May. The Price game is going to be tough, so hopefully the Yanks can get to Shields and Niemann. Losing this series isn’t the end of the world, although a sweep by the Rays would be fairly disheartening.
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