The Yankees and Rays Will Be in Tight Race All Year

New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays

This season was supposed to be a down year for the AL East, but after three weeks, it’s been the best division in baseball. Two games separate the five teams and the Yankees and Rays are atop the division at 11-8 with a three-game series between the two teams starting on Monday.

With the Yankees and Rays meeting in the Bronx for the first time this season, Daniel Russell of DRaysBay joined me to talk about losing the Rays’ impressive start, Rays fans’ perspective of A-Rod, Chris Archer’s dominance of the Yankees and how the AL East will play out this summer now that both teams have seen every team in the division.

Keefe: Since the last series between the two teams, the Rays have gone 5-1, winning a series against the Red Sox and sweeping the Blue Jays. After their hot start, the Rays were recently 6-8 and I thought it might be the start of their decline with the roster turnover and injuries they are dealing with, but they have rebounded to share the lead in the division with the Yankees.

For a team that was expected to have to win a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games this year, they have done that, but they have also had no trouble putting up big numbers here and there in the first month of the season.

Given the names in their lineup, the Rays’ offense was supposed to be the weak link for 2015, but it has managed to do just enough to win games with great pitching. I guess we should all just be used to that by now?

Russell: The Rays continue to be a team built off run prevention and just-enough offense, but you’re right, the offense has done well. Most of that comes from matching up well in the handedness department. Guys like David DeJesus, Tim Beckham, Brandon Guyer and Logan Forsythe have been critical.

For any team to find success, there needs to be a little luck involved, and the Rays have done particularly well in their pinch-hitting department. That’s remarkable, as the team topped out its disabled list at 12 guys on Wednesday among several other playing-hurt guys like Souza, Cabrera, and Jennings.

Now as the starters come back into the fold, it will certainly be interesting to see what the Rays do with the guys off the bench who’ve delivered.

A lot of that has to do with taking walks as well, which we are all well acquainted with in the division. The only three teams in the American League with 10 percent walk rates are the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox, but it’s true the offense has been putting up strong numbers.

Tampa Bay chips away at their opponents, and it’s been paying off. Their 113 wRC+ is fifth in the American League, ahead of New York at sixth (107).

Keefe: Evan Longoria hasn’t really been a part of those big numbers. He’s hitting .306/.413/.468, but he also has just one home run and four RBIs, which puts him in the Jacoby Ellsbury Club (one home run, two RBIs) early this season.

Where has Longoria’s power been? Do you ever worry about him?

Russell: Longoria has been ridiculously productive this month, so it doesn’t bother me yet that he hasn’t homered since opening day. All 19 games of the season thus far have been played in domes or under roofs, so the longballs will come.

In the mean time, Longo has a 14.7 percent walk rate and a 14.7 percent strikeout rate, while batting a .306 AVG at a 152 wRC+. It’s too soon to panic.

Keefe: The Yankees went to Tampa as a bad baseball team. They couldn’t hit or pitch with any consistency and their defense and base running was atrocious. They were 3-6 before the first game of that three game series, but then everything changed on that Friday night. Everything changed when Alex Rodriguez took over the game.

A-Rod finished 3-for-4 with two home runs and four RBIs and hit the go-ahead single in the top of the eighth in the Yankees’ win. Since that night, the Yankees have gone 8-2 to climb to the top of the AL East.

Last night on Sunday Night Baseball against the Mets, A-Rod got the Yankees started with an opposite-field home run, his fifth of the season, just two weeks after saving the Yankees’ season on Sunday Night Baseball against the Red Sox with a first-inning, bases-clearing double.

I am a huge A-Rod fan and supported, mainly because he has been treated so much worse and differently than other PED users, but also because he helps the team win. From an outsider’s perspective and from someone who watched their team lose a game single-handedly because of him, what are you feelings on A-Rod?

Russell: I’m not all Rays fans, I’m sure the fan base hates him, but what I love about baseball – and sports in general – is entertainment and narrative. A-Rod getting clean, then coming back and being the dominant baseball player he always was supposed to be, is just pure entertainment.

The Yankees winning just makes me hate the Yankees more. That sort of passion is reserved to the laundry for me.

Keefe: For the second series this year, the Yankees will thankfully miss Chris Archer as he pitched the day before the start of both series.

In six career starts against the Yankees, Archer is 5-0 with 1.93 ERA. Outside of Felix Hernandez, I think Archer is the active pitcher with the most dominant performances against the Yankees. So of course I’m ecstatic we won’t see him again this week.

What makes Archer so special? Is he considered to be the ace of the staff with Cobb and Moore still out, and is he the ace even with them back?

Russell: Archer can thrive on two pitches two times through the lineup. Thanks to some added strength this off-season he’s pushing 98 with the fastball and has a wipe out slider. When the third time comes around, he introduces the change and no one knows what to do with it. It’s a joy to watch.

He’s also an intelligent kid, a big personality, and someone who constantly gives back to the community. He signed a longterm deal thankful for everything the club has done for him.

They don’t make ’em like Archer too often.

Keefe: The Yankees and Rays are tied atop the AL East at 11-8 with the entire division separated by two games. I have a feeling it’s going to be like that the entire season with all five teams in the race and no one really pulling away and riding and hiding for the summer with the division lead.

What are your early thoughts on the division now that you have seen the Rays play all the teams?

Russell: I’ll agree I expected the division to be pretty tight, I don’t really see any club pulling ahead. New York and Toronto are susceptible to injury, the Orioles and Red Sox to pitching problems and Tampa Bay to the offense slipping away.

The fact that the Rays have not only tread water in the division, but been able to pull ahead some of the other teams, has been really something. If this is what the Rays’ B-Team can do, I’m excited to see what happens when the injured players are re-introduced.