NEW YORK -- The American League East is there for the New York Yankees to take. Of their 63 remaining games, 36 are against division opponents, beginning Thursday night with a visit from the surprising Tampa Bay Rays. The Yankees start the series with the fewest losses of any team in the East.
With the 100th game of the season on the schedule Thursday and the trade deadline soon to be hours instead of days away, this is now the stretch run.
"These [games] are really important," manager Joe Girardi said.
For this AL East-heavy stretch of schedule, the Yankees have Aaron Judge, who has feasted on division rivals. Of Judge's 32 home runs, 18 have come against AL East pitchers. He has owned the Orioles and Blue Jays, with 11 homers in 78 at-bats, and he is near that pace against Tampa with three bombs in 33 at-bats. He has one against the Red Sox in 18 at-bats. If the shoo-in for AL Rookie of the Year is also going to win the AL MVP award, he'll need to add to those numbers.
The first task at hand for the Yankees (53-46) is separating themselves from the Rays, which, given their payroll differential (around $200 million compared to $70 million), would seem easy enough. But that's not how baseball works. The Rays (53-49), while not the favorites to win the division, can’t be counted out.
The opening pitching matchup is a strong one, as CC Sabathia (9-3, 3.44) faces Chris Archer (7-6, 3.77). The Yankees usually have trouble against Archer; the right-hander has posted a 2.73 ERA against them and held the Bombers to a .202 batting average.
"He's got a great slider," said Yankees newcomer Todd Frazier, who is 0-for-6 with three strikeouts against Archer. "He'll use it a lot. His fastball is electric. He's got that energy that that team can build off of. You have to get him early and often. You can't miss the pitch. You are going to get one pitch in each at-bat, basically, to hit. For him, a lot of guys miss it, so we just have to get on him."
Sabathia, meanwhile, has fared well against the Rays of late. The Yankees have a seven-game winning streak against Tampa Bay in Sabathia's starts. In the past two-plus years, Sabathia is 4-0 with a 3.05 ERA against the Rays.
Former ace Masahiro Tanaka, who starts Friday, continues to stick out as a sore spot for the Yankees. His disappointing season is one of the main reasons the Yankees are likely to add a starter by the trade deadline.
Tanaka (7-9, 5.37) has not been very good against many teams this season, but he has been especially bad against the Rays. In two starts, he has lasted just 5 2/3 innings, allowing 13 runs on 17 hits. The omens were there at Tropicana Field on Opening Day, when Tanaka allowed seven earned runs in 2 2/3 innings.
Tanaka will be followed Saturday by Sonny Gray (kidding ... we think). You can expect Gray or some other starter to arrive by Monday’s trade deadline because it's hard to imagine the Yankees trusting rookie Caleb Smith with the ball every fifth day with the division title in reach. For now, Smith (0-1, 8.10 ERA) is set to get the ball against Blake Snell (0-6, 4.86 ERA) on Saturday. The Yankees usually chase Snell early, but without much damage. He has a 2.38 ERA against them in five starts but has lasted only 22 2/3 innings.
All these AL East games aren't just about the division, but the wild card, too. The Yankees are on pace for 86 to 87 wins, which probably would sneak them into the playoffs but might not be enough to win the division. The American League, outside of Houston, isn't particularly strong. As it happens, the 2015 Astros, with 86 wins, won the least amount of games to get into October as a wild card. This year's second wild-card entrant from the AL might lower the bar.
The Yankees want the division. It starts by creating separation from their closest opponents. They have a chance to do that this weekend.