Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, I half-joked that the Yankees should devote serious time to uncovering why they regularly struggled against the rival Rays at Tropicana field. Even more jokingly, this proposed effort was dubbed “The Florida Project” after the initial development phase of neighboring Walt Disney World.

Something must have clicked last year because New York won the season series 11-8 and was 5-5 at the Trop. However, 2015 was the last season in which the Yankees actually had a winning record in St. Petersburg. Now, they face a Rays team that’s first in the AL East at an incredible 25-6 and leads MLB in most hitting stats.

As if that weren’t enough, Tampa Bay also leads all teams with a 2.96 ERA. New York’s pitching staff isn’t far behind with a 3.53 ERA but once again, the Yankees’ path to the playoffs includes slaying the mighty Rays.

Thus, we kick off Year 3, Phase 1 of the Florida Project with the following message: Says who?

Let’s be honest. These Rays have not established themselves as the model for other teams to follow. They’re a small market team with a low-budget owner who only succeeds because they lucked into finding the perfect manager.

Want to know why the Rays have played so well? Look at their opponents thus far. The only playoff teams among them are the Blue Jays and defending World Series champion Astros, a total of six games.

And the Rays’ record in those six games? 2-4.

The rest of the Rays’ opponents? The Detroit Tigers, Oakland A’s, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox (twice!), Washington Nationals, Boston Red Sox, and Pittsburgh Pirates. Yes, the Pirates are first in the NL Central, but more because they’re overachieving while the rest of the division underachieves.

The fact remains that the combined records of all of those teams is 91-124. That’s a .423 winning percentage. Subtract Pittsburgh and it drops to .385. Now, subtract the Red Sox’s sudden and surprising five-game winning streak, and it plummets to .365!

The Tampa Bay Rays look good on paper because more than three quarters of their games this year have been against absolute non-contenders. Nobody is intimidated by Oakland, let alone Detroit, and the Tigers were in the World Series a decade ago.

All that being said, the sad reality is the Yankees are underdogs heading into their weekend series with the Rays. It’s that much harder to win with both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton on the injured list. The lineup absolutely must be as effective as it was against the Guardians earlier this week.

This means the strategy absolutely must be designed not just around hard contact, but base hits. Anthony Rizzo is the only reliable power bat in the lineup. That is, unless Jake Bauers’ hot streak at Triple-A continues in the majors.

And yes, that means we’ll probably see both Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Aaron Hicks start games this weekend.

It will be fine because the Yankees know what has to be done to beat the Rays. Everyone knows their success is a mirage, so much that ESPN’s own Jeff Passan had to qualify his Tampa Bay praise by acknowledging they were playing a bad team. Oh, and that also happened on April 2, way too early to determine anything meaningful about any team.

None of this is to say the Rays are a complete and utter flash in the pan who will eventually tailspin into last place and stay there. They’ve always been good at developing young pitching. The starting rotation is talented even if the team ERA is a little too good to be true. The AL East is also competitive enough that they’ll probably at least clinch a Wild Card.

But for now, and especially this weekend, they are the dragon the Yankees need to slay, their mountain to climb. The players need to forget everything they hate about the team, the Trop, and everything in between. Just take the field and play.

One win. Then another, maybe being down but never out. Slowly chipping away at that AL East lead and hopefully winning another series.

It’s all about sending a message. Enjoy first place while it lasts. The Yankees are coming for it.

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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.