Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports

A four-game series split with the Rays later, and the Yankees enter a well-earned day off right where they started the holiday weekend: first place in the AL East with a 4.5 game lead.

The split itself couldn’t have been cleaner. The Yankees won the first two games, and the Rays took the next two. Two games where New York’s power and pitching were on full display, two where the Tropicana Field Effect was out full force.

If anything, the series was a shot across the Yankees’ bow. Giancarlo Stanton and Josh Donaldson’s bats were missed, and the Yankees are batting just .198 in their last nine games. Even worse, the alleged Bronx Bombers are hitting just .175 with runners in scoring position over that stretch.

There’s a lot to digest from Year 2, Phase 1 of the Florida Project, and a lot for the Yankees to improve. Some takeaways:

The bullpen cupboard is bare. Clay Holmes has been lights out at closer, but the iconic Yankee Bullpen Bridge needs construction at an inopportune time. Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Loaisiga are on the injured list with Achilles and shoulder injuries. Chad Green is out for the season.

Nobody builds better bullpens than the Yankees, and the current group has still performed generally well. New York’s relievers own a collective 3.18 ERA, good for fifth in MLB. But Miguel Castro and Lucas Luetge are streaky and Ron Marinaccio is still learning how to pitch. The team should be fine, but Aaron Boone might need to get creative.

The Aaron Hicks/Joey Gallo albatross. Hicks and Gallo’s struggles stick out more in a banged up Yankees lineup. Hicks can work competitive ABs, but not much else. Joey Gallo is still home run or bust and probably will be his whole career.

It’s doubly frustrating because while Gallo was on the COVID-19 injured list, Miguel Andujar made his long-anticipated return. He’s now a fully capable left fielder who still puts the ball in play. By designating Gallo for assignment, benching Hicks, and maybe promoting Estevan Florial for more depth, the Yankees could solve this problem from within. But with Hicks’ contract, will they?

The Rays are still the Rays. The Rays traded Austin Meadows, don’t have Tyler Glasnow, and are just a different team in 2022. And yet, they’re still a strong contender in the AL East. In fact, the Rays’ pitching staff ranks fourth in baseball with a 3.26 ERA, not far behind the second-ranked Yankees.

Not to mention, the Rays can still work competitive at-bats, field well, and have depth for days. The Yankees hold the upper hand but make no mistake. Tampa Bay is ready to nip at their heels the rest of the way. And yet…

The Yankees are still the better team. Let’s take a look at the Yankees’ two losses in the series, which were by respective scores of 3-1 and 4-2. New York might have won Saturday if Gerrit Cole’s 100 mph fastball to Ji-Man Choi wasn’t squeezed by the umpire. On Sunday, the Rays only managed two hits to go with four runs. A solo homer each for Choi and Taylor Walls, then a walk and hit-by-pitch when Marinaccio lost his command.

Walls was even so brash as to call the Yankees “beatable” after New York’s 7-2 win on Thursday. Guess what, Taylor? So are your Rays, who neither gained nor lost ground in the division this series. Everyone being right where they were from the start means even for a series split, this is basically a win for the Yankees.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.