New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Rays Preview: Tough Divisional Matchup

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New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Rays Preview: Tough Divisional Matchup

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Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Yankees are coming off a tough series against the Baltimore Orioles in which two games went into extra innings and their most effective starter this season, Hiroki Kuroda, had to exit early.

The team now has a day off before starting what promises to be yet another tough series against division rival Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays are currently in fourth place in the AL East, but they are by no means out of the race. At 24-22 and just four games behind the Yankees in the standings, it is important for the Yanks to keep the Rays at bay.

While the Yankees currently have the better record and the bulk of the star power, the Rays have some weapons that the Bombers should be wary of. The first is starter Matt Moore. The lefty is leading the majors in wins and has not lost a game yet. Next is relief pitcher Joel Peralta, who has been solid out of the bullpen so far this season with a 2.08 ERA and the second-most holds in the American League.

At the plate, Evan Longoria and James Loney are leading the team in very batting category, already putting up tremendous numbers for May. The Rays always tend to play the Yankees hard, but the Yanks should be up for the challenge.

Though the Rays will be putting up two of their best starters, with manager Joe Maddon shifting the rotation around so the Yankees would see Alex Cobb, the Yankees can take these games. The key will be for the starting pitchers to have good outings, something that has not been a guarantee thus far with the roller coaster nature of the rotation.

The offense will need to come alive as well to face the tough starting pitching, and they will have to produce more than they did in Baltimore if they want to win the close games it seems the Rays always play against the Yanks.

If the Yankees can take two out of three, they will be in a good position to play a four-game home and home series against the New York Mets, who have been losing and surely want nothing more than to beat the Yankees. First however, they need to take on the persistent Rays.

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David Phelps vs. Roberto Hernandez

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Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

In the first game of the series, David Phelps will look to match his last start, in which he went seven innings and gave up only one run while striking out eight. Of his four starts this season, his most recent start was by far his best.

The seven-inning start was the longest outing of his career, and he was locating his fastball against righties and lefties, as well as using his cutter and changeup as out pitches with success.

The Yankees will be facing Roberto Hernandez (Fausto Carmona), who is in his first year with the Rays after pitching only three games in the 2012 season due to legal issues and controversy.

Though Hernandez has pitched well in the past, he has not been anything more than a fifth starter so far this year, with a 2-4 record and an ERA that is over five. He throws hard, however, and is known for racking up strikeouts, so it is possible he will have a rebound performance after only going two innings and giving up five runs in his previous start.

But If Phelps can repeat his successful start in Toronto and build upon it, then the Yankees have a good chance to take this game as long as they can get to Hernandez.

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Vidal Nuno vs. Matt Moore

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Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The second pitching matchup was recently altered to give rookie lefty Vidal Nuno a chance to make his second career major league start. His first start in a doubleheader in Cleveland was successful: he went five scoreless innings giving up just three hits, but he has only appeared in three games so far this season, so the sample on which to go on is quite small.

His most recent appearance in the previous series against Baltimore was one Nuno likely wants to forget, as he gave up a walk-off homer to Nate McClouth, earning the loss and probably losing some of his early confidence as well.

The Yankees are priming Nuno to be a starter, but there is no real way to predict how well or poorly Nuno will pitch against the Rays, given the short time he has been up in the majors.

To make matters more complicated, Nuno will be facing another lefty who is having arguably one of the best starts to the 2013 season.

Moore has been the ace of the Rays, picking up the slack left by a sub-par David Price who is now on the disabled list. Moore is 8-0 with a 2.29 ERA, the third best in the AL, and averages almost nine strikeouts per game.

In his last start against the Yankees in April, Moore went eight innings, giving up just two hits and one run. His most recent start is just as impressive: he went seven against Baltimore in another one-run effort.

The Yankees need to get to Moore early. Usually when he does have starts in which he gives up multiple runs, there are dents made in the first few innings.

It won’t be easy for the Yankees as they haven’t hit well against lefties all season, but it is possible that Moore will have his first bad outing and Sabathia will pitch a gem. It’s not likely, but it is possible.

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C.C. Sabathia vs. Alex Cobb

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Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The final game of the series pits the veteran ace lefty who has been struggling a little of late against a righty who has been exceptionally good so far this season.

C.C. Sabathia will be facing Tampa Bay for the second time this season. He went seven innings the first time and struck out eight, but gave up five runs and got the loss.

As I mentioned in a previous article, Sabathia has not looked as dominant as he has in previous years, and his velocity has noticeably gone down, resulting in a surprisingly high number of hits surrendered.

His most recent start against Toronto proves just that: he gave up 11 hits and four runs, earning a no-decision. He will need to do better than that against Tampa and shut down the Rays early, especially going against Cobb.

However, even his best efforts might not be enough if Cobb, who is on the mound for the Rays, pitches as well as he recently has been.

Though his record is not nearly as impressive as Moore’s, Cobb has been having an almost comparable season. He has a 2.73 ERA with a 1.13 WHIP and 54 strikeouts on the year.

Cobb can also induce groundouts easily, meaning the Yankees might have a hard time with him. They had a hard time in their last meeting, where Cobb went 8.1 scoreless innings.

The Yankee bats might have trouble overpowering Cobb, so the hope is that Hughes pitches a good game to give his team time to figure out the Rays' pitching.

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Tampa Bay Rays Offense

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Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa offense might not seem to be particularly powerful, but their numbers show that they can hit and they can score.

The team ranks in the top-10 in the majors in runs, batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. The Yankees only rank in the top-10 in slugging, and they are below the Rays in that category.

Of course these numbers can be deceiving, as the Yankees have been a hard-working team offensively this season making up for all of the injuries, but it shows that Rays are no slouches either.

Longoria leads his team in home runs with nine, as well as RBIs, runs scored, and OPS. Though it is still early, he is having an All-Star season (were it not for Miguel Cabrera), ranking in the top-five in batting average, runs, slugging, and OPS. As the stats prove, Longoria is having a great offensive season and an especially hot month of May.

In addition to Longoria, Loney is batting .350, whileKelly Johnson and Matt Joyce (who is day-to-day) have eight homers apiece.

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New York Yankees Offense

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The Yankees’ offense is still being led by Robinson Cano, who leads all regulars in batting average, home runs, RBIs, OBP, and hits.

Helping Cano is Vernon Wells, who is still enjoying his Yankee success, and Lyle Overbay, who has 25 RBIs and seven homers. Even the slumping Travis Hafner had two clutch hits in an extra-innings win against Baltimore.

Furthermore, Curtis Granderson had his most productive game in the short time since he has rejoined the team on Wednesday night, going three-for-three with a single, a double, and his first homer of the year.

The offenses on paper seem to slightly favor the Rays, but the Yankees are a day-to-day team that is full of surprises and has players that can get a clutch hit when needed, so it is anybody’s guess which offensive lineup takes over in each game.

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Sum Up

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Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

These teams appear to be fairly evenly matched going into this weekend’s series. Though the Yankees are in first place and the Rays are in fifth, the AL East is a division that is in constant flux; one bad series and the Yankees’ tenuous hold on first place may be gone.

They will need to rely on three quality starts from their starters, especially in the second two games of the series where Moore and Cobb will take the mound. Sabathia is a veteran ace, however, and Hughes’ season has been unpredictable enough, so that they can both pitch well against the Rays’ lineup.

Equally important will be the Yankee offense. Cano will have to lead the charge against the starters, and if the 2013 additions continue their success and Granderson starts to hit his stride, they will have every opportunity to win this series and go into the following week with a better grasp on their lead in the standings.

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