NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 01: New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays exchanges words after the final out in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium on September 01, 2020 in New York City.
(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

The New York Yankees can expect a chippy Division Series against their AL East rivals, the No. 1 Tampa Bay Rays.

Josh Benjamin

After a tough Wild Card round in Cleveland, the New York Yankees can expect an even bigger battle in the Division Series.

Awaiting the Bronx Bombers in the San Diego bubble are the Tampa Bay Rays, who finished first in the AL East. The Rays are also the No. 1 seed in these expanded playoffs and made short work of the Toronto Blue Jays in the Wild Card.

However, this series will have a different tone. Though a short five-game series, every game will have the energy and urgency of Game 7. New York did not play well at all against the Rays all year and is out for redemption.

Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is hoping to set the tone for a new hierarchy not just in the division, but in all of baseball.

Let’s take a closer look and see which team has the advantage.

Rivalry revisited

The New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays don’t like each other. At all. Ever since CC Sabathia’s infamous outburst, the adrenaline whenever these two teams play is amped up to 11.

And 2020 was no different. Tempers flared after Aroldis Chapman threw at Michael Brosseau last month. Yankees-Rays drama has become as annual as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Brett Gardner has already said though both teams are staying at the same hotel, they’re barely acknowledging each other. Even at a neutral site, this Division Series will be no different.

On paper, Tampa Bay has the advantage. They won eight of ten games versus New York in 2020 and looked better across the board. Their pitchers and bullpen were practically flawless. The lineup got the timely hits when they mattered the most. More than half of the wins came not at desolate Tropicana Field, but at Yankee Stadium.

But the home-field advantage is no longer a factor. Players are only allowed so much of a routine compared to what they could do if at home.

The stage is set for the best kind of playoff drama, and with two hungry teams to boot.

The lineups

And though the Rays handled the New York Yankees seemingly with ease this season, take the results with a grain of salt. They may not show it, but the Bronx Bombers have a clear advantage in the hitting department.

For context, the Yankees faced Tampa Bay ten times in 2020, and only had the oft-injured Giancarlo Stanton in the lineup for three of them. Aaron Judge, similarly, missed six of the matchups with an injury of his own. AL batting champion and MVP candidate DJ LeMahieu missed a series with a thumb injury.

Additionally, the Yankees still ranked fourth in MLB in runs scored despite their injuries and an infamous 5-15 cold streak. The Rays may have had the best record in the league and won the AL East, but their lineup only ranked 12th in scoring.

But let’s go back to the Yankees’ 20-game slump for a second. Of the 15 losses, five came against the Rays.

Think about that for a second. During a 5-15 slump, a third of New York’s losses were against the Rays when both Judge and Stanton were hurt. Moreover, the usually reliable New York Yankees bullpen blew the game in four of the team’s eight losses versus Tampa Bay. The pitching was basically being asked to carry a depleted lineup and ran out of gas at a bad time.

Now, with a full Yankee lineup again, it’s clear who has the advantage.

Edge: Yankees

The rotation

Pitching is 100% the x-factor in this series. The New York Yankees’ arms were streaky all year, with ace Gerrit Cole only being the real sure thing. In the playoffs, he and Masahiro Tanaka are a pretty viable 1-2 punch. I wrote a piece breaking down just how the Yankees should set their rotation for this series, which can be read here.

The Tampa Bay Rays, however, are largely the No. 1 seed because of how well they pitched in 2020. The team ranked second in the American League with a staff ERA of 3.56, which also ranked third in MLB. Opposing hitters batted just .238 against Tampa Bay pitchers, so mounting any offense is a tall order for New York.

As to personnel, the Rays are pretty well-stocked at the top of their rotation. Blake Snell is a former Cy Young winner who generated a 61.8% whiff rate (Whiff%) on his curveball this year. Speaking of curveballs, Tyler Glasnow is a 6-foot-8 tree of a man whose curve spin is in the 92nd percentile compared to the league average, per Baseball Savant.

Every New York Yankees fan knows Charlie Morton from his time with the Houston Astros. After these three, Tampa Bay could opt for its usual party trick of employing an opener. This makes bullpen management vitally important.

The point is Tampa Bay has three reliable arms at the top. Tanaka is a solid No. 2 for New York, even after bad weather and delays affected his performance in Cleveland. Every arm besides he and Cole, especially rookie upstart Deivi Garcia, is more of a question mark.

In this case, Tampa Bay wins out.

Edge: Rays

Bullpen

The bullpen has been a staple of the New York Yankees in recent years. Manager Aaron Boone lets his starters go, and then has a plan set for which reliever he brings in and when up until Chapman’s turn. Fans saw in Game 2 against Cleveland how much tougher that is this year, with Adam Ottavino’s usually devastating slider having disappeared.

In fact, the Yankee bullpen bore the brunt of most of the 5-15 cold stretch. A reliever took the loss in seven of those 20 games. As a result, New York’s bullpen corps underachieved to a 4.51 ERA, 16th in all baseball.

Contrastingly, the Rays’ bullpen ranked third in the majors with a 3.37 ERA. Manager Kevin Cash has less a versatile group of pitchers, but a mixed bag of tricks. His ability to just get an out or two here, an inning or two there makes Tampa Bay borderline unpredictable. On paper, they should have the clear-cut advantage.

But let’s add some context on the New York Yankees’ side. Their bullpen was awful for three weeks, but could only do so much. Keep in mind, the Yankees only averaged 3.5 runs per game during their slump. The bullpen has to be held accountable, sure, but can only do so much if the offense isn’t producing.

Now, the lineup is in a better position to support its arms. The Rays won’t make it easy with their bullpen, but the Yankees’ relief crew can still breathe somewhat easier now.

Edge: Push

The verdict

This is going to be a hard, intense, blue-collar series. For fans, it’s a classic playoff matchup of division rivals as both look to move on to the American League Championship Series.

But for the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, these aren’t just three to five games. For them, this is the Infinity War; the Battle of Helm’s Deep; the Battle of Endor, with all the action at Petco Park.

The point is neither team is going to give the other an inch. Even with the Yankees’ ability to put runs on the board in a hurry, Tampa Bay will find a way to make things interesting. Pitching will factor into every matchup in some way and in-game management can easily swing the momentum in one direction or the other. If there is a Game 5 and Gerrit Cole pitches on short rest, it’s truly anybody’s game.

But after breaking it all down, the Rays just have an advantage. Both teams enter the series with the same amount of time off coming in, but New York just won a tough and emotional Game 2 in Cleveland despite questionable bullpen management. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, made relatively short work of the Toronto Blue Jays in two games.

This series will be tough. It will provide several defining moments on both sides. Both teams will be determined to establish momentum quickly, and a fully operational New York Yankees lineup/Death Star only adds to the storyline.

This time, the Rays will win out. However, they’ll advanced knowing they were just in a big fight, and the New York Yankees are not a gentle squad.

Prediction: Rays in 5

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