Yankees vs. Rays: Things to know, how to watch, prediction as the top two teams in the AL East meet at Tropicana Field

The most important series to date on the young 2019 season will take place this weekend at Tropicana Field. The first place Tampa Bay Rays will host the second place New York Yankees for three games. The two clubs, along with the Red Sox, were expected to vie for the AL East title this season and that has been the case so far.

Here are the AL East standings going into Friday night's series opener:

  1. Rays: 23-13
  2. Yankees: 22-15 (1.5 GB)
  3. Red Sox: 19-19 (5 GB)
  4. Blue Jays: 15-22 (8.5 GB)
  5. Orioles: 13-24 (10.5 GB)

The Rays have baseball's best run differential at plus-59. The Yankees are sixth at plus-34. According to FanGraphs, the Rays have the second largest increase in postseason odds in baseball since Opening Day. They've raised their postseason odds from 28.2 percent to 73.4 percent. Only the Twins have improved their postseason chances more (35.8 percent to 86.9 percent).

Here are the details for this weekend's series in St. Petersburg (all games can be streamed regionally on fuboTV -- try for free).

DateStart TimeStarting PitchersTV Listings

Fri., May 10

7:10 p.m. ET

RHP Domingo German (6-1, 2.35) vs. RHP Tyler Glasnow (6-0, 1.47)

Fox Sports Sun, YES, MLBN

Sat., May 11

6:10 p.m. ET

LHP CC Sabathia (2-1, 3.20) vs. TBA

Fox Sports Sun, YES

Sun, May 12

1:10 p.m. ET

RHP Masahiro Tanaka (2-3, 3.77) vs. LHP Blake Snell (3-3, 3.62)

Fox Sports Sun, YES, MLBN

The Rays are expected to use an opener Saturday with right-hander Yonny Chirinos (4-1, 3.52) the obvious candidate to be the "bulk" guy who comes out of the bullpen. Tampa will pick their opener -- it's possible Chirinos could start the game -- following Friday's series-opener depending on their bullpen usage. Righty Ryne Stanek (0-1, 2.50) is an opener candidate.

"I really don't look at it as a measuring stick," Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters, including NJ.com's Randy Miller, when asked about the importance of this weekend's series. "I look at it as an important game against a division rival that's a really good team. I look at it as we've got to put our best foot forward and play well. That's the goal, that's the focus."  

This is the first series of 2019 between these two AL East rivals -- they'll see each other again next weekend at Yankee Stadium -- and, given, the standings and expected division race, every head-to-head matchup is crucial. The easiest way to make up ground (or bury a team) is winning these head-to-head contests. Here's what to know going into this weekend's series.

1. The Trop will be full of Yankees fans

The series may be played in Tropicana Field, but it's going to sound like a Yankees home game. The Yankees always travel well, plus they have a strong presence on Florida's Gulf Coast. The team has held spring training in Tampa since 1996 and many New Yorkers retire to Florida as well.

"We obviously have a lot of fans in Tampa because we have spring training there, but we have a lot of fans wherever we go, I feel like,'' Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times earlier this week. "We're so familiar with it. I've always enjoyed my time there."

Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier added: "It's different, but at the same time I've been here since 2014 and I know what to expect with what we go up against. It's okay. We just have a different dynamic than most of the teams out there."

Despite their on-field success, the Rays rank 29th in attendance this year at 13,105 fans per game. That is down from 14,259 fans per game last year, though, to be fair, school's not out yet and the peak attendance summer months have not yet arrived. This weekend's games figure to be among the most attended of the season for the Rays, and it'll most be Yankees fans.

2. The Rays have had the upper hand at home

The Tropicana Field crowd may have the Yankees' backs more often than not, but it has not helped them on the field. The Rays are 15-10 in their last 25 home games against the Yankees dating back in 2016, including 6-4 last season.

Oddly enough, the head-to-head numbers are very close despite that lopsided record, and in many cases the Yankees have had the advantage. Check it out:


W-L Runs Scored ERA AVG OPS HR

Rays

15-10

93

3.83

.230

.705

31

Yankees

10-15

104

3.63

.240

.692

27

The Rays have the head-to-head series edge despite being outscored largely because they haven't beaten the Yankees at home by more than four runs since 2014, though they've been on the wrong end of some blowouts, including a 12-1 drubbing last September.

Despite Tampa's success against the Yankees at home, many close wins and a few blowout losses swing the run differential in New York's favor. Fortunately for the Rays, only wins and losses matter in the standings.

3. Both teams have a thriving new third baseman

This season both the Rays and Yankees are both benefiting from a former Indians third baseman. Tampa Bay picked up Yandy Diaz in the three-team Carlos Santana/Edwin Encarnacion trade over the winter and they've helped him unlock his power. The Yankees added Gio Urshela in a minor trade last year and he's been a godsend at the hot corner.

Although Diaz is getting a ton of attention this season -- attention he deserves, for sure -- Urshela is outproducing him on a rate basis. The head-to-head numbers:


PAAVG/OBP/SLG OPS+HR WAR

Yandy Diaz

145

.262/.359/.516

136

7

1.3

Gio Urshela

89

.354/.416/.532

152

2

0.8

Urshela received his opportunity when Miguel Andujar hit the injured list with a shoulder injury last month. He was supposed to be a short-term fill-in until Andujar returned, but he's played so well that the Yankees have had no choice but to keep him in the lineup. Urshela is now the full-time third baseman with Andujar at DH, and, earlier this week, he hit a game-tying two-run in the ninth inning against the Mariners. Then Thursday night Urshela provided what proved to be the game-winning two-run single.

Diaz has moved around a little bit for the Rays -- he's started 17 games at third base, eight at first base, and eight at DH -- but he's been a lineup mainstay and an impact hitter. He's already hit seven homers in 33 games this season after hitting one in 88 games with Cleveland the last two seasons.

4. The Yankees have Snell's number

Or at least they have to date. In 11 career starts Snell owns a 4.37 ERA and an opponent's .742 OPS against the Yankees. That includes allowing nine runs in 13 2/3 innings in three starts against the Yankees last season. Snell, during his 2018 Cy Young season, had a 6.08 ERA against the Yankees and a 1.56 ERA against everyone else. Huh. The individual 2018 starts:

DateResultIPHRERBBKHRPitches

April 4

7-2 loss

3 2/3

4

5

5

3

5

2

90

June 4

4-3 loss

5

5

4

4

4

8

2

105

Aug. 16

3-1 win

5

2

0

0

1

6

0

76

Total

13 2/3

11

9

9

8

19

4

271

What do all those numbers mean now? Eh, pretty much nothing. Snell is as good as any pitcher in the game when he's right and the it's not like he will face the 2018 Yankees in 2019. Far from it. The Yankee have been trotting out a skeleton crew lineup lately given all their injuries. Although the Yankees have handled Snell well throughout his career, including last year during his Cy Young season, I would not feel comforted by those numbers. He's a handful.

5. The Rays are getting one player back, but losing another

Friday night outfielder Austin Meadows will return to Tampa's lineup after missing 14 games with a thumb injury. His original timetable was expected to be several weeks, so he's back ahead of schedule. The Rays have not yet announced Meadows has been activated, but first baseman Nate Lowe has already been sent to Triple-A to clear a roster spot, so it's happening.

Prior to the injury Meadows, who came over from the Pirates in the Chris Archer trade, authored a .351/.422/.676 batting line with six home runs in 20 games. The Rays elected not to send Meadows on an official minor league rehab assignment and instead had him get at-bats in extended spring training games the last few days, so there might be a little rust.

Meadows' return gives Tampa quite a bit of outfield depth. They are short behind the plate now though. Michael Perez is on the injured list with an oblique strain and Mike Zunino is reportedly heading to the injured list as well. He has a quad issue.

With that, the Rays are now down their top two catchers. Their catching tandem for the time being will be rookie Nick Ciuffo and 29-year-old journeyman Anthony Bemboom. Bemboom has spent most of the last four seasons in Triple-A and is a career .235/.309/.349 hitter in more than 1,700 minor league plate appearances. This will be his MLB debut.

6. The Yankees are still beat up

The Yankees are kinda sorta starting to get healthy. Andujar (shoulder) and Clint Frazier (ankle) both returned from the injured list within the last week, and Gary Sanchez (calf) returned two weeks ago. Despite that, the Yankees still have 12 players on the injured list. The list:

The Yankees are without their starting shortstop (Gregorius), replacement shortstop (Tulowitzki), starting outfield (Hicks, Judge, Stanton), top two starters (Paxton, Severino), and top setup man (Betances), among others. Hicks is currently on a minor league rehab assignment and is tentatively scheduled to rejoin the Yankees on Monday. He won't be around for the Rays series though. It is pretty amazing the Yankees are not only staying afloat, but thriving despite losing so many key players.

"You've got to be impressed with what the Yankees have done with all their injuries, they're pretty well documented,'' Rays manager Kevin Cash told John Romano of the Tampa Bay Times. "They've still put together a really good season. They're very talented."

7. LeMahieu has been red hot

When the Yankees passed on Manny Machado and instead signed former Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu this past offseason, the move was met with a collective groan in New York. Now, six weeks into the 2019 season, LeMahieu is a fan favorite and mainstay in the leadoff spot. He's hitting .344/.399/.451 and has been even better than that the last two weeks:


PAAVG/OBP/SLGBBKRunners in Scoring Position

LeMahieu last 14 days

37

.500/.568/.594

5

4

6 for 9 (.667)

LeMahieu goes into Friday's series-opener riding an 11-game hitting streak. He's reached base multiple times in nine of those 11 games and, earlier this week, he provided a walk-off single against the Mariners. Coincidentally enough, LeMahieu was very nearly a Ray this winter. Here's what he told Eduardo Encina of the Tampa Bay Times back in February:

LeMahieu, a former NL batting champ and and three-time Gold Glove winner with Colorado, said he gave "serious thought" to signing with the Rays, but instead decided to sign a two-year, $24-million deal with the Yankees. "They had interest, along with a few other teams,'' LeMahieu said. "Absolutely, some serious thought. They have a lot of good things going on over there.''  

While not as scorching hot as LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres will go into Friday's game having hit safely in 13 of his last 14 games. On the other side of the coin, Andujar and Frazier are a combined 5 for 38 (.132) since returning from the injured list.

Tampa's hottest hitter the last two weeks is rookie slugger Brandon Lowe. He's authored a .333/.381/.564 batting line with two homers the last 14 days. Tommy Pham (.293/.408/.488) and Avisail Garcia (.314/.400/.486) have both performed well recently as well. Ji-Man Choi (.172/.242/.310) has not.


Series prediction

The Yankees are playing as well as any team in baseball right now. They are 16-6 in their last 22 games even with all those injuries. The Rays are 9-9 since their 14-4 start. Despite that, I'm going to predict the Rays win two of three this weekend. The Yankees will take Friday's opener with German outdueling Glasnow before the Rays stifle the Yankees with the opener Saturday and Snell dominates Sunday. It has been foretold.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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