Business picking up in AL East

Yankees host first-place Rays in key three-game set
06/05/2012 1:07 PM ET
By Jon Lane

A-Rod: "Every year is tough, and it seems like this year is the toughest."(AP)

These are your New York Yankees one-third of the way through the 2012 regular season: Injuries have put offensive sparkplug Brett Gardner, prolific setup man David Robertson and the greatest closer of all time Mariano Rivera on the shelf – the latter for the remainder of the campaign. The starters’ ERA is 4.64. The offense has hit an unfathomable .219 with runners in scoring position and .158 with the bases loaded. Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira, the heart of the order, have a combined 26 home runs and 78 RBIs

All this in what’s proving to be the toughest division in the game.

Guess what? The supposedly aging Yankees may be in third place, but they’re just 1 ½ games behind the AL East-leading Tampa Bay Rays, in town this week for a three-game set. And while some serious Subway Series hype started with Johan Santana’s no-hitter and the surprising Mets a half-game from the NL East penthouse, the immediate task of both teams is a tad more important. While the Yankees play the Rays, the Mets are in our nation’s capital attempting to pry first place from the Nationals. New York vs. New York may be fun, but the end result is bragging rights for either fan base. What ultimately decides which teams make the October cut are division games, so don’t blame the Yankees for passing on the sizzle. Their primary focus is on the steak.

“There’s no easy games in our division,” Teixeira said. “There’s not a team we’re going to beat up on, so you can’t afford to get too far down because there are some years where you might be five games out, but there’s only one team in front of you. This year every team has a winning record, so if you get too far down, you’re going to have four or five teams to jump over.”

The Yankees return home after a 6-3 road trip, sweeping three in Oakland, dropping two of three in Anaheim and taking two of three in Detroit – punctuated with Phil Hughes’ complete-game four-hitter. Don’t look now, but New York is winners of eight of its last 11. Despite failing in the clutch, the Yanks still lead the American League in home runs (80) and rank second in OBP (.338). Derek Jeter is batting .336 and Curtis Granderson (team-leading 19 homers and 33 RBIs) is proving his signature 2011 season wasn’t a fluke. Rafael Soriano (6-for-6 in save opportunities) has stabilized the closer’s role to lead a bullpen that despite missing Rivera and Robertson continues to be effective. Through their last turn, Yankees starters averaged more than six innings per start and pitched to a 3.92 ERA. In the last three games (2-1) CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Hughes allowed a mere five runs in 23 innings pitched.

“Pitching is always the key,” said Yankees manager Joe Girardi.

The Yankees have gotten it going at the right time with the Red Sox gaining some steam and the Orioles 2-8 in their last 10 after losing two of three to the Rays over the weekend. Despite nine players on the disabled list, including Evan Longoria, and still seeking pop for the offense, Tampa is 31-23, best in a division where all five competitors have winning records.

"We've been able to hold serve," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "We're still on top. The guys who have been out there have been doing a great job. The effort has been fantastic."

And the Yankees have persisted despite a 2-4 record against the Rays and a 9-9 mark against division rivals. The days of pushover opponents are over, and while it’s early June, the Yanks understand that what they plant now will harvest later.

“We have over 100 games left,” Alex Rodriguez said. “Every series is important. We know our division games are always very important and we want to establish some momentum. … Every year is tough, and it seems like this year is the toughest. You know, this division has unbelievable parity, and it just keeps getting better.”

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