NEW YORK -- Every game matters. Every series matters. Every win and every loss counts the same in the standings. We’ve heard it all before.
Still, the next two weeks could be particularly important for the Rays. It begins tonight with Corey Kluber facing Gerrit Cole in the opener of a three-game series at Yankee Stadium. Then comes a weekend trip to Baltimore, a three-game home series with the Yankees and three more games at Tropicana Field against the Pirates before another off-day on June 27.
The next two weeks could go a long way toward helping the Rays make up some ground in an American League East race that’s been dominated by the Yankees to this point. Here’s why.
1. Six chances to beat the team they’re chasing
“I think there’s always a little more emphasis on a divisional series, just because it directly affects the standings in the division,” Kluber told reporters on Sunday in Minnesota. However …
“If we start getting wrapped up in how well they’re playing and whatever their lead is in the division -- I couldn’t even tell you right now what it is -- I think that it’s just so early that … it takes away from the focus of going and trying to win that night,” Kluber added.
That’s exactly the attitude players should have, but we’re allowed to look at the bigger picture. The Rays are currently nine games behind the Yankees in the standings, matching their largest divisional deficit since the end of play on Sept. 23, 2019. That’s a significant advantage, one the Rays can most effectively chip away at by winning these head-to-head matchups.
The Yankees are 44-16. They have the Majors’ best run differential, best team OPS and best team ERA. It’s hard to imagine them maintaining this pace all season, sure, but they don’t look like they’re about to let up anytime soon. The Rays split their first series of the season, but they’ll need to play their best baseball to shrink the gap between them.
“We're going to have to, because they haven't slowed down,” manager Kevin Cash told reporters on Sunday. “They've been on a tremendous run. They're a very talented team.”
2. Six chances to beat teams they should beat
Looking back on last season, we should never overlook how good the Rays were against their top AL East rivals. They went 11-8 versus the Yankees, 11-8 versus the Red Sox and 11-8 versus the Blue Jays. What else separated them? They beat up on some bad teams.
The 2021 Rays memorably finished with an 18-1 record against the rebuilding Orioles. They went 6-1 against sub-.500 teams in Cleveland and Anaheim. They went a combined 12-1 against the Phillies, Mets and Marlins. Is it fair to expect that level of dominance again? Probably not, especially with the Rays’ roster currently racked by injuries.
But the Orioles are still rebuilding, albeit with a more competitive roster than in recent years, as are the Pirates. These are series the Rays should set out to win, if not sweep, because …
3. A big chance to get on a roll
The Rays are 4-4 in their last eight games, 9-8 in their last 17 games and 17-15 in their last 32 games dating back to May 8, the day their season-best six-game winning streak ended in Seattle. Just treading water is an achievement considering the number of injuries they’ve dealt with, and it’s put them on a 94-win pace overall.
But another hot streak would go a long way toward boosting their postseason odds, which currently sit at 70.7%, according to FanGraphs. Ideally, a good run would also put them in position to make a real push up the standings when they start getting some key players back from the injured list and get closer to full strength.