Monday night at Yankee Stadium, the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays will open a three-game series that could very well decide the AL East race. The Rays come into Monday with a nice 3 1/2-game lead on the Yankees and a series win would more or less bury New York with less than four weeks to play.

Here are the current AL East standings:

  1. Rays: 24-11
  2. Yankees: 19-13 (3 1/2 GB)
  3. Blue Jays: 18-14 (4 1/2 GB)
  4. Orioles: 14-19 (9 GB)
  5. Red Sox: 12-22 (11 1/2 GB) 

Both teams are postseason locks — Sportsline puts their postseason chances at north of 98 percent — though winning the division equals home-field advantage in the postseason. There are no fans in the stands and the postseason may be played in a bubble, but getting the final at-bat is a very real benefit, and both teams want it in October.

The Yankees are Rays are coming into this series riding winning streaks. The Rays have won five in a row and are 18-3 since starting 6-8. The Yankees, meanwhile, snapped their seven-game losing streak Saturday and won three straight games over the Mets the last two days. This three-game series is New York’s last best chance to get back into the AL East race.

Here are the details for this week’s three-game series at Yankee Stadium. Games can be streamed regionally on fuboTV (try for free). 

Mon., Aug. 31

7:05 p.m. ET

RHP Gerrit Cole (4-1, 3.51) vs. RHP Tyler Glasnow (1-1, 5.14)

YES, Fox Sports Sun

Tues., Sept. 1

7:05 p.m. ET

RHP Masahiro Tanaka (0-1, 3.48) vs. TBA

YES, Fox Sports Sun  

Weds., Sept. 2

7:05 p.m. ET

LHP Jordan Montgomery (2-1, 4.44) vs. TBA

YES, Fox Sports Sun  

Right-hander Trevor Richards (0-0, 4.71) is lined up to start Tuesday’s game for the Rays, though they have paired him with an opener at times this season, which could happen again. Wednesday would be lefty Ryan Yarbrough’s regular turn. A groin issue sent him to the injured list over the weekend and the Rays have not yet announced who will take his rotation spot.

Here are five things to know about this weekend’s three-game series at Yankee Stadium.

1. The season series has been one-sided

This is the final regular season series between these two teams and the season series has been very one-sided. The Rays are 6-1 against the Yankees this year, including a three-game sweep at Yankee Stadium two weeks ago. It was the first time the Yankees were swept at home in a multi-game series since 2017. Here is the season series to date:

at TROPICANA FIELD

  • Fri., Aug. 7: TB 1, NY 0 (box score)
  • Sat., Aug. 8 Game 1: NY 8, TB 4 in 7 innings (box score)
  • Sat., Aug. 8 Game 2: TB 5, NY 3 in 7 innings (box score)
  • Sun., Aug. 9: TB 4, NY 3 (box score)

at YANKEE STADIUM

Three of the seven games were tied in the eighth inning or later and the Rays won all three. Those were essentially coin-flip games and the coin came up in Tampa’s favor each time. Had the Yankees eked out two wins in those three games, they would only be 1.5 games back, and the AL East race would be much more competitive. Instead, they’re looking at a 3.5-game deficit.

The Rays, it should be noted, have already clinched the season series over the Yankees, so they hold the tiebreaker. MLB will not play tiebreaker games this season, not even to decide the No. 8 seed, so if the Yankees and Rays finish with identical records, the Rays would be declared AL East winners.

2. New York’s bullpen is a mess

The bullpen was expected to be a major strength for the Yankees this season and that has not played out at all. Aroldis Chapman started the season on the COVID-19 injured list and has since returned, but Zack Britton is currently out with a hamstring injury and Tommy Kahnle had Tommy John surgery earlier this month. His season is over.

With no Kahnle and no Britton, manager Aaron Boone has leaned on the typically reliable Chad Green and Adam Ottavino as Chapman’s primary setup men and it hasn’t worked out. Even Chapman has faltered recently. This four-game span was especially brutal last week (the first three were seven-inning games during doubleheaders):

Weds., Aug. 26 in Game 2

Chad Green

Yankees up 1-0 in the sixth inning

Green surrenders two-run homer to Freddie Freeman, takes the loss

Fri., Aug. 28 in Game 1

Chad Green

Yankees up 4-1 in the sixth inning

Green allows three homers in the span of five batters, takes the loss

Fri., Aug. 28 in Game 2

Aroldis Chapman

Yankees up 3-2 in the seventh inning

Chapman allows two-run walk-off homer to Amed Rosario, takes the loss

Sat., Aug. 29 Adam Ottavino Yankees up 1-0 in the eighth inning Ottavino allows a game-tying solo homer to Wilson Ramos, Yankees rally to win

The Yankees had at least an 80 percent chance to win all four games, according to FanGraphs, and three of the four turned into losses. Last year New York lost three games all season when leading with no more than six outs to go. They have three such losses already this season, and all three came in a three-game span. Ouch.

Overall, New York’s bullpen owns a 4.47 ERA this season, which ranks 17th in baseball. It’s one thing for lesser known middle relievers to let games slip away when key guys are out injured. It’s another when your best arms turn leads into losses, as Green and Chapman did recently. Getting the bullpen straightened out is a priority for the Yankees the rest of the way.

3. Both teams have an MVP candidate …

Though they probably aren’t the players we all expected. It’s not Aaron Judge or Austin Meadows or Gleyber Torres or Yandy Diaz. It’s Luke Voit and Brandon Lowe. They have been among the very best hitters in baseball this season.

2B/OF Brandon Lowe

135

.282/.372/.632

173

10

27

1.6

1B Luke Voit

101

.308/376/.725

193

12

22

1.1

Among the 150 players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, Voit and Lowe rank 3rd and 8th in OPS+, respectively. They’re getting it done in the clutch too. Six of Voit’s home runs have either tied the game or given the Yankees the lead. Lowe has seven such homers.

Given their position player injuries, Voit is more important to the Yankees right now than Lowe is to the Rays. That isn’t to say Lowe isn’t important to Tampa, he obviously is, but Voit has been New York’s only consistent offensive force this season and especially lately, while Judge, Torres, and Giancarlo Stanton are sidelined. Expect he and Lowe to get MVP votes when the time comes.

4. … and also a lot of injuries

This has been a brutal season for injuries all across baseball. Through 28 regular season days this year, 181 players had been placed on the injured list with baseball injuries (i.e. not COVID-19). It was 148 players on the injured list through 28 days in 2019 (and 148 in 2018 as well). The three-month shutdown and three-week summer camp sure seem to be taking a toll on everyone.

“Pretty simple: short spring training,” Yankees lefty James Paxton, who is on the injured list with a forearm strain, told reporters last week when asked to explain the increase in injuries, according to MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch. “We didn’t get enough time going at a lower speed to build up. A few weeks into the season, guys are not fresh anymore. The tiredness is building up. We don’t have that base we normally have.”

The Yankees and Rays have been hit as hard as any team in the game. New York did welcome DJ LeMahieu back from the injured list over the weekend, though they’re still without Britton (hamstring), Paxton (forearm), Judge (calf), Kahnle (Tommy John surgery), Stanton (hamstring), Torres (quad and hamstring), and Kyle Higashioka (oblique). (Luis Severino went down with Tommy John surgery in spring training.)

As for the Rays, they have 10 pitchers on the injured list with arm problems: Jose Alvarado, Nick Anderson, Jalen Beeks, Yonny Chirinos, Oliver Drake, Andrew Kittredge, Brendan McKay, Charlie Morton, Colin Poche, and Chaz Roe. Beeks, Chirinos, McKay, and Poche either have had or will soon have season-ending surgery — McKay had shoulder surgery, the others Tommy John surgery — and Kittredge may require Tommy John surgery as well.

Neither team will be at full strength this series, far from it, but they’re not alone. Just about every team in baseball is dealing with many injuries. That is the nature of the beast in this unusual season with a quick ramp-up period.

5. The trade deadline looms

Oh by the way, the trade deadline is 4 p.m. ET on Monday, so the Yankees and Rays could have several new players in the organization for this series. It’s unlikely any last-minute new additions will participate in Monday’s game, however. The players not only have to travel and join their new team, they may have to go through a COVID-19 intake process before being activated. 

The Yankees are in the market for pitching help, both rotation and bullpen, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear them connected to bats given their injuries. The Rays are always tough to pin down on deadline day. They’re perfected the art of simultaneously buying and selling (i.e. Chris Archer and Tommy Pham trades in 2018) and figure to do the same this year.

You can keep tabs on all of Monday’s trade deadline activity with our trade tracker and live blog.

Prediction

Might as well close with a prediction. Given each team’s recent trends, I’m not going to overthink this one and say Rays win two of three. New York’s offense has been sluggish without Judge, Stanton, and Torres — Saturday’s and Sunday’s wins required a walk-off wild pitch and a miracle down-to-their-final-out comeback — and their bullpen has struggled. The Rays keep finding ways to win despite their injuries. The Yankees haven’t.

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