The Tampa Bay Rays (31-23) have a monumental task on their hands if they want to keep their AL East lead through Thursday. Every team in the division is above .500 -- at least two games above .500, as a matter of fact -- and the New York Yankees (29-24) are just 1.5 games behind the Rays entering play on Tuesday.
The Yankees open the series with a league-leading 80 home runs and the third best offense in the MLB according to weighted runs created plus (wRC+). The Rays have a major advantage in pitching (a 3.84 fielding independent pitching -- or FIP -- compared to the Yanks' 4.21 FIP), not to mention the Rays defense, but this series will come down to -- as it often does in the majors -- matchups.
So let's look out how the Yankees rotation squares against the Rays' rotation and lineup:
Tuesday, Game 1
RHP James Shields vs. LHP Andy Pettitte
The Rays have the great misfortune of facing two top-level lefties in their trip to New York. The May rash of injuries took out the team's three best right-handed hitters -- 3B Evan Longoria, LF Desmond Jennings and UTIL Jeff Keppinger -- leaving a lefty-heavy lineup that could barely make contact against, say, LHP Chris Sale -- who struck out 15 Rays in a recent start.
The good news is the Rays will get Desmond Jennings back before the game starts, so that should be a big help. Why? Because Andy Pettitte has MURDERED left-handed bats this year -- 2.80 FIP with a 29.0% strikeout rate and 3.2% walk rate. Those numbers are a bit above his career norm, but considering 1B Carlos Pena, DH Luke Scott and LF Matt Joyce all struggle against lefties, it could make for a really bad day.
Jennings and CF B.J. Upton should give the Rays a decent punch against Pettitte, and OF Hideki Matsui has performed well against lefties in his career, so he might actually get the start at DH. Meanwhile, James Shields has a 3.95 ERA, but is in the midst of another career year despite that. He's getting strikeouts; he's getting ground outs; and he's barely walking a soul. When his home run rate normalizes -- and it will -- he could be in Cy Young contention again.
All told, this is not an easy matchup -- despite Pettitte being 40 years old and Shields looking sharp -- but I think the Rays can take Game 1.
Wednesday, Game 2
It would appear this matchup favors the Rays, but it actually slices very evenly. Nova has been hit hard by the home run this season, but he has a career-best strikeout rate (20.9%) and walk rate (7.2%). If the Rays cannot reverse that trend, they may be in for a surprise struggle against a 5.60 ERA pitcher.
Though it is still early in Nova's career -- and trends like this can reverse themselves quickly -- it appears Nova has a particular weakness for allowing dingers to lefties. Which is good news for the Rays, who have now four power lefties and who will be going from a park that suppresses left-handed power (Tropicana Field) to the field that encourages lefty home runs more than any other park in the league (Yankee Stadium II).
In the other dugout, Alex Cobb needs to find his command quickly, or the potent New York lineup will crush him. Cobb has a 15.4% K-rate and 9.0% BB-rate. In the minors, he typically struck out around 25% of batters and walked only 6%. That's the ratio he needs for success on Wednesday night.
I'm worried about this pairing. I think the Yankees take Game 2.
Thursday, Game 3
LHP David Price vs. LHP CC Sabathia
Clash of the Titans. Price versus Sabathia has been one of the more exciting lefty-against-lefty pitching matchups in the MLB over the last few years. Both pitchers have started the season strong (3.23 FIP for Price, 3.78 FIP for Sabathia with a little bad home run luck) and both are poised for yet another great year.
Sabathia -- like Pettitte -- is death on lefties. He is striking out 31.3% of left-handed batters this year, and he has held southpaws to a 2.85 FIP in his career. On top of that trouble, the Yankees have feasted on left-handed pitching this season with the second-best wRC+ against lefties in the league (114, behind the Red Sox at 115).
CC Sabathia throws an enormous slider that can get ugly hacks from just about any and every left-handed hitter the Rays could throw at him. If Tampa Bay is going to win this one, it will come on the shoulders of Upton, Jennings and lefty-mashing 2B Sean Rodriguez.
My prediction is the Yankees win this game, but if the Rays can get a big day out of Jennings and/or Upton, then they could win this one and take the series.