Yankees vs. Rays matchups: Where Bombers have edge in ALDS
Years of rising tensions between the two AL East teams will come to a head as the Yankees and Rays meet in the postseason for the first time, with the Yankees the fifth seed in the American League facing what Aaron Boone kiddingly called “the big bad No. 1 seed of the AL,’’ in the Rays.
If the regular season means anything, the Yankees figure to be in trouble, as they dropped eight of the 10 meetings between the teams this year. But the Yankees brushed off their road woes by beating the Indians in Cleveland in the wild-card round, while the Rays easily knocked off the Blue Jays. They’ve met just once since Aroldis Chapman threw a 101 mph fastball over Mike Brosseau’s head last month, which ratcheted up the rivalry even more. Now, as Giancarlo Stanton said in the lead-up to the ALDS, the Yankees and Rays will be taking the East Coast battle to the West Coast.
Yankees vs. Rays ALDS matchups
At the plate
Getting on base: Just like much of the rest of their respective rosters, the Yankees and Rays’ lineups have much different looks on paper, but are both effective. While the Yankees relied on former All-Stars such as Gleyber Torres and Brett Gardner to spark their offense against Cleveland, it was lesser-known bats like Manuel Margot and Randy Arozarena for the Rays in their sweep over Toronto. If the Yankees are going to get by the Rays, DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela will need to be a big part of it, while Tampa Bay will also look for Brandon Lowe and Yandy Diaz, who is coming off a hamstring injury.
Power: The Yankees showed they were unaffected by their late-season power outage with their performance in Cleveland. Against Tampa Bay, at least some of their lineup’s fate rests with Stanton. The DH was either injured or a strikeout machine for much of the latter part of 2020, but he began to change the narrative with good at-bats and a pair of homers against the Indians. And were Gary Sanchez’s key homer and sacrifice fly in Game 2 positive signs or just another tease? Aaron Judge set the tone for the wild-card series with his first-inning blast in Game 1 and Luke Voit continued to shake off a foot injury to provide consistent thump in the middle of the lineup. The Rays have never built their team around power, although they traded for Hunter Renfroe and signed Yoshi Tsutsugo last offseason. Both had down seasons, but Renfroe hit a grand slam in Game 2 against Toronto. And Ji-Man Choi has three hits — all homers — off Yankees ace Gerrit Cole.
On the basepaths: Margot and Joey Wendle give the Rays base-stealing threats and Tampa Bay thrives on often-overlooked aspects of the game — taking extra bases whenever there is an opening — to help overcome other deficiencies.
In the field
Infield: Urshela showed his value at third base again against the Indians, with his run-saving double play in the eighth inning of Game 2. Torres didn’t make any costly mistakes at short in that series, so perhaps his success in the postseason will translate to defense, as well. Willy Adames is still the superior defensive shortstop
Outfield: The Yankees went with Brett Gardner over Clint Frazier in left, in part because of Gardner’s defense in Progressive Field’s left field. The outfield at Petco Park is also spacious and Aaron Hicks and Judge will be fine. Austin Meadows has been out with an oblique injury, but could play a role this series. Kevin Kiermaeir remains a premier center fielder for the Rays, who also use Margot, Renfroe and Aronzarena in the outfield.
Brosseau, who was at the plate when Chapman unleashed that 101 mph fastball up and in on Sept. 1, has downplayed the incident. He could see time at first base. Wendle filled in at third base when Diaz was out. Boone went to the bench early in Game 2, when he yanked Voit for pinch-runner Tyler Wade, a move that didn’t work out, but Wade’s speed and defense will no doubt play a role. With the Yankees’ comfort with Gardner in left, Clint Frazier may need to get used to pinch hitting, although he could start against the left-hander Blake Snell.
On the mound
Rotation: Boone said Gerrit Cole will start Game 1, but has declined to line up any other starters. They’ll have to rely on Masahiro Tanaka and — unlike in the wild-card series, at least one more starter, perhaps J.A. Happ. If the series goes five games, Jordan Montgomery and Deivi Garcia will potentially be in the mix, but Cole dominated the Rays twice with the Astros in last year’s ALDS. Though that series had days off built in, Cole would have to pitch Game 5 this time on short rest. The Rays will go with Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton in the first three games. Snell and Glasnow have been excellent and Morton was better toward the end of season. Ryan Yarbrough is a good option for Game 4, with Snell a possibility for Game 5.
Bullpen: So much for the star-studded Yankee bullpen, as Chad Green and Zack Britton struggled against the Indians and the Yankees proved they have no faith in Adam Ottavino. But they will need them, as well as others — including Jonathan Loaisiga, who melted against the Indians, and perhaps Clarke Schmidt. Aroldis Chapman saved them and he will play a vital role as he put the disappointment of the 2019 ALCS behind him with an excellent outing in Game 2 against the Indians. Much like their lineup, the Rays’ bullpen doesn’t generate a lot of headlines, but they’ve got several excellent arms in Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Peter Fairbanks and Chaz Roe. Josh Fleming may also be used in a variety of roles.
Ordinarily, this would simply be a test for a pair of managers of two of the top teams in the American League. That all changed last month, when Chapman’s fastball sailed over Brosseau’s head, which nearly led to a benches-clearing brawl. Afterwards, Kevin Cash called out what he thought was “poor judgment, poor coaching, poor teaching” by the Yankees and a not-so-subtle threat about having “a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph,’’ which, not surprisingly, Boone and the Yankees took offense to. Now, it’s a matter of which manager can do the best job of keeping his team focused on winning the series and not getting worked up about the past.
The Yankees are the more battle-tested team and they seemingly have gotten over the ugly way they ended the regular season. But the Rays proved to be one of the most dangerous teams in baseball during this COVID season. And instead of Tampa Bay having the advantage of playing up to three games at Tropicana Field, all the games will be at San Diego’s Petco Field, which should work in the Yankees’ favor.
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