The New York Yankees will face the Tampa Bay Rays this weekend in a matchup between a first and last-place team in the American League East Division. It’s wild to think that one month into the season these two teams are on opposite ends of the standings. The Yankees are a .500 team that is treading water with injuries and a hapless lineup. The Rays have the best record in baseball and are clicking in all facets of the game.
.@RaysBaseball is now 20-0 this year when scoring first.
That ties the 1990 Reds for the longest winning streak when scoring first by any MLB team to begin a season in the modern era.
That year's Reds team held first place wire-to-wire and won the World Series.
— OptaSTATS (@OptaSTATS) May 3, 2023
Yet, here we are. It’s a testament to how well the Rays operate and can continue to build while the Yankees made a risky bet and it hasn’t paid off. The Yankees head to Tampa with a grim outlook in the three-game set. After all, the Rays have only lost two games all year at home. That said, they can make this a series, particularly, if their key players step up.
Which Yankees Must Step Up Against the Rays
One of the Yankees best pitching prospects has had a rough start to his career. He pitched five scoreless innings in his debut and only allowed one run in his first 10 innings pitched, but then things went downhill from there.
Jhony Brito has allowed 13 runs in his last four starts including a start against the Minnesota Twins where he allowed three runs in 2.2 innings pitched. His underlying stats are even more concerning. Brito’s opponent’s Barrel Percentage is 12.9 and his expected opponent Slugging Percentage (xSLG) is .515, indicating that opponents are making good contact and powering the ball off of him.
Well, he faced the Rays in the series opener, a team that averages a league-leading 6.68 runs per game. Brito will have his hands full and could be in for a long start. He’s an off-speed-reliant pitcher who has a hanging sinker, allowing opposing hitters to get under the pitch and crush it. In the upcoming game, he needs to locate his pitches and avoid making costly mistakes since the Rays will make him pay.
That said, a strong start can go a long way for Brito and the Yankees. If he hones in on his change-up and sinker while using his occasional fastball to keep hitters guessing he can go five strong innings. Brito in this game can prove that he belongs in the rotation for the long haul. For the Yankees, a strong start can not only give them an early series lead but show that they have a reliable young pitcher in the backend of their rotation.
It’s time for Anthony Volpe to step up at the plate and add a spark to an awful lineup. The Yankees are dealing with a power outage at the plate and need a handful of hitters to start making an impact.
Volpe is a contact hitter who has yet to make effective contact, slashing .221/.325/.356 with only 37 total bases. He’s still adapting to MLB-level pitching but eventually, he needs to be a reliable contributor to the batting order.
The past few games have shown promise. Volpe moved to leadoff which allows the Yankees to benefit from his speed when he gets on base. In the past three games, he’s had three hits including a home run in the 4-3 win over the Cleveland Guardians. He needs to carry the momentum from the week into the Rays series and start to lead a struggling lineup.
DJ LeMahieu is supposed to be the contact hitter in the lineup who gets on base and keeps the line moving, ideally to balance out a power-heavy lineup. He’s been anything but one month into the season. He’s slashing .260/.324/.430 with only 43 total bases and is taking pitches more than usual. His 29.7% strikeout rate is alarming for a hitter that typically makes contact and puts the ball in play.
Tropicana Field isn’t a hitter-friendly ballpark, despite the Rays making it feel seem like one at times. The Yankees, who haven’t scored five runs in a game in their last seven games, won’t outslug the Rays. However, they can put together strong rallies and win games with their contact hitters stepping up. LeMahieu is one of them and with the Yankees battling injuries, he needs to carry the batting order.
Of course, Gerrit Cole will have to be the savior. He’s been the ace and most valuable player all season with dominant starts on the mound. Every time the Yankees fall into a slump, they can count on Cole to lift them with a strong start to put them back on track.
Wins are not a pitcher stat but he’s 5-0 this year compared to the rest of the rotation which is 7-10. His WAR is 2.4, the next best players on the Yankees are Aaron Judge, who is injured at the moment, and Anthony Rizzo with both players having a 1.0 WAR. Cole doesn’t play every day but has been far and beyond the best player on the team, speaking volumes of his value (and the lack of support otherwise).
It’s likely that the Yankees will be down 2-0 in the series or split the first two games. They need Cole to end the series strong. His fastball is better than ever but he faces a lineup that can hit the heat. He needs to give the Yankees six or more strong innings and carry them to a victory. Moreover, his start can kickstart a strong month where the team climbs out of last place after beating the best team in baseball.
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