NEW YORK — Since April 1, one team has stood alone atop the American League East standings.
It might not after this weekend.
Many around baseball thought the switch might have happened last weekend, when the division-leading Tampa Bay Rays played host to the hobbled but surprisingly surging New York Yankees in a pivotal early-season series at Tropicana Field.
But the Rays managed to scratch out one win in those three games — and still led the AL East on Monday.
Now, five days later, the teams meet again for another three-game set, this time at Yankee Stadium. The Rays enter this series with a half-game lead threatened by a Bronx Bombers club that has battled through a bevy of injuries and bludgeoned its way up the standings.
In looking ahead to the weekend, it’s worthwhile to look back at the last time these teams faced off. Here are four things the Yankees have learned about the Rays.
1. Tampa Bay’s pitching staff is tough, but …
The Yankees have gotten to both of them in the past. In Sunday’s 7-1 series finale win, the Bombers ultimately cruised to the lopsided victory thanks to timely post-power-outage pop against Tampa Bay’s bullpen after the unexpected 43-minute delay. Although Snell was handed his fourth loss of the season, he allowed just two earned runs and four hits. With his breaking pitches working, he also struck out 12.
Still, his stuff against the Yankees hasn’t always been so sharp: Snell is 3-5 with a 4.25 ERA and eight home runs allowed in 12 career starts versus the team he’s faced more than any other.
Morton has squared off with the Yankees just four times in his 12-year career. While he has a 2-1 record against them, his ERA in those starts is 4.10. In his latest outing against the Yankees, late last May in the Bronx, Morton — pitching for Houston at the time — gave up eight hits and two home runs in an eventual Yankees win.
Before their collapse Sunday, the Rays’ bullpen lost last Friday’s series opener. Specifically, that game was decided in the sixth when reliever Emilio Pagan gave up a two-strike RBI single to Gio Urshela. The go-ahead drive effectively negated the nine-strikeout performance Tyler Glasnow had delivered before a forearm injury took him out of the game and ultimately landed him on the injured list.
As for Urshela, the third baseman who has replaced Miguel Andujar (lost for the year with a torn labrum), his month-plus tenure in the big leagues this season has been stellar. Key two-strike hits and run-producing drives are becoming as much a part of his game as the slick barehanded grabs he’s had charging in from third.
As formidable as parts of this Rays staff might be, the Yankees learned last weekend they can navigate it.
2. The Rays aren’t afraid to pitch aggressively — just ask Luke Voit
Voit, the Yankees’ hulking first baseman who has been a rather unexpected offensive godsend, has gotten a ton of pitches inside this season.
He’s gotten so many that he’s started taking exception to them. If you were hit five times in 42 games, you probably wouldn’t be too happy either. “It’s frustrating,” Voit said after getting plunked last Saturday at Tampa Bay.
“He can hit me anywhere else. This one’s up and in,” Voit said. “It’s a situation that can be career-ending. He’s a sinkerballer and that was pretty straight.”
The HBP resulted in a lot of barking between the teams, including from Yankees starter CC Sabathia, who was ejected his previous trip to Tampa Bay and later suspended for five games. In that September 2018 appearance, he hit then-Rays catcher Jesus Sucre after his own catcher, Austin Romine, had a pitch thrown behind him.
“It’s just the same thing, you hit a home run and then they throw up and in,” Sabathia said. “It’s stupid.”
Regardless of intent as it pertains to Voit, the burly right-handed hitter has to expect more pitches to come in on his hands after the power he’s shown in pinstripes (24 homers, 65 RBIs and a .955 OPS in 80 games as a Yankee entering Friday). And if any team is going to throw them, it’ll be Tampa Bay.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, 38.3 percent of the 47 pitches Voit has faced from Rays pitchers this season have been either balls too far in or strikes on the inside corner. Only the Giants have topped them, with 43.5 percent of the 62 pitches they tossed to Voit in a three-game series last month being inside.
Overall, the power hitter has seen a slight uptick in the percentage of inside pitches he’s seen in 2019 compared with 2018, when he was a relative unknown. Of the 679 pitches Voit saw in 2018, 28.8 percent were inside. Of the 693 he’s seen so far this season, 32.8 percent have been inside.
3. Bombs away: The Rays have a little pop
Tampa Bay might not be living by the long ball quite like the Yankees — who set a major league single-season record with 267 homers last season — but the Rays are having more success going deep than they did a year ago.
Perhaps that helps explain the Rays’ plus-62 run differential, the second-highest mark in baseball behind Houston’s plus-87.
Yes, there are teams with nearly twice as many home runs as the Rays. Heck, even the Yankees’ 62 homers, coming in a year in which many of their top sluggers are on the shelf, dwarfs the 49 Tampa Bay has.
But a quarter of the way through the season, it’s noteworthy that the Rays have already hit about a third of the homers they did a year ago.
It’s notable, too, that of their 49 homers, six came in last weekend’s three-game series with the Yankees. In the middle game of that series, Tampa Bay went yard three times in a 7-2 win. First it was Avisail Garcia in the second inning, then in the next inning Yandy Diaz, who added another blast in the eighth.
Diaz, who’d hit one homer in his first two big league seasons, already has nine in Year 3.
Will he add to his total this weekend? Diaz left Wednesday’s game in Miami due to a sore left ankle — and it remains unclear whether he will play Friday night.
4. The Yankees’ injuries haven’t erased the stark differences between the franchises
By the middle of next month, the Yankees will have met the Rays nine times across a 37-game stretch.
That means these teams soon will be very familiar with each other, if they aren’t already. It also means that even if the Yankees end up snatching first place from their division foes sometime this weekend, by the middle of next month the Rays could grab it right back.
Perhaps, then, the best way to view this series is how Yankees manager Aaron Boone approached the last one.
“I don’t really see it as where we stack up at this point or anything like that,” he said a week ago. “We’re trying to rack up as many wins as we can. We’re trying to play as well as we can. That’s the hyper-focus we go into each day with.”
With a comparable number of wins, Kevin Cash’s Rays have clearly been trying to stockpile victories, too. And they’re doing it with a payroll that’s a mere fraction of the Yankees’ nearly $210 million total.
Even with all their missing stars, just three Yankees players who appeared in Sunday’s series finale — Brett Gardner, Masahiro Tanaka and LeMahieu — would account for about 67 percent of Tampa Bay’s payroll.
As depleted as the Yankees have been by the injury blitz they’ve endured — 17 of their players have landed on the IL this season — they still have been able to fund a talented and deep organization, while also paying for top-of-the-line facilities whose failing lights don’t cause unnecessary delays. (Then again, they could use an outfield that can quickly drain monsoon-like rains, but we digress.)
Power outages and facility incongruities aside, depth certainly has been the difference for the beat-up Yankees. It’s exactly what has helped them earn the chance to get past the Rays this weekend, instead of getting buried early.