Future Rays mascot? (Pitita pirata/Creative Commons)

(Ed Note: This has been updated to reflect Brandon Lowe’s placement on the IL.)

On a four-day holiday weekend, the Yankees travel to the least festive place in baseball, Tropicana Field. Or is this Olympic Stadium? I’m confused.

Their Story Thus Far

The Expos Rays have tried to engage on a two-way timeshare between Tampa Bay and Montreal since the Yankees last played them. I’ll hold off on my opinion, but the plan’s fortunes seem suspect despite the Expos nostalgia from people such as myself.

Anyway, on the field, the Rays remain the Yankees’ top AL East competitor, though Tampa Bay struggled through a three-city road trip in New York, Oakland and Minnesota. They are 6.5 games back of the Yanks with the Bombers eight games clear in the loss column.

Tampa Bay got just as many All-Stars (3) as the Yankees, including Brandon Lowe’s surprisingly addition over Gleyber Torres. No comment. Hopefully, Torres will take his spot now that Lowe is on the IL with a leg injury, though V314ft wishes Lowe a speedy recovery!

Injury Report

The Rays are a bit banged up: INF Brandon Lowe (leg) is now on the 10-day IL while OF Kevin Kiermaier (neck) is day-to-day. 1B Ji-Man Choi was just placed on the 10-day IL before Wednesday’s game. Third basemen Christian Arroyo and Daniel Robertson are both on the 10-day IL as well.

Top reliever Diego Castillo could return this weekend from right shoulder inflammation while LHP Anthony Banda, RHP Tyler Glasnow, INF Matt Duffy and C Anthony Bemboom are all on the 60-day IL.

Player Spotlight: Tommy Pham

It’s easy to lose sight of how good a player is when they come to Tampa Bay and that is what has happened with Tommy Pham.

Pham was 11th in MVP voting in 2017 with the Cardinals, but a slow start to 2018 in addition to issues with St. Louis’ front office led to his exit and a midseason trade. It was somewhat confounding at the time and looks increasingly so.

In 117 games with Tampa Bay, Pham has hit .303/.406/.519, almost identical to his breakout 2017 in St. Louis. He doesn’t hit for prodigious power — topping out at 23 homers in 2017 — yet he makes up for it with a tremendous eye at hte plate. Pham is 19th in MLB with a 13.3 percent walk rate while only fanning on 19.3 percent of appearances.

The outfielder is an ideal No. 2 hitter and will normally sit there in the Rays’ lineup. He can be especially fearsome against the Yankees’ cadre of left-handed starters, though the Yankees have held him to a .216/.275/.324 line through nine games this year.

Potential Lineup

  1. Travid d’Arnaud, 1B (.208/.261/.362, 66 wRC+)
  2. Tommy Pham, LF (.280/.380/.463, 129 wRC+)
  3. Avisail Garcia, DH (.277/.334/.449, 110 wRC+)
  4. Yandy Diaz, 3B (.284/.357/.498, 127 wRC+)
  5. Austin Meadows, RF (.286/.358/.500, 127 wRC+)
  6. Willy Adames, SS (.252/.316/.406, 95 wRC+)
  7. Michael Brousseau, 2B (.417/.417/.833, 231 wRC+ in 12 PAs)
  8. Mike Zunino, C (.182/.233/.309, 44 wRC+)
  9. Guillermo Heredia, CF (.248/.333/.376, 96 wRC+)

This is a more lefty-based lineup with the Yankees set to trot out three southpaws. CF Kevin Kiermaier (91 wRC+) will see time if healthy while Austin Meadows moves up to leadoff against righties. d’Arnaud is the backup catcher while Joey Wendle (46 wRC+) can back up any infield position. 1B Nate Lowe was recalled for his fellow Lowe.

Dang. I think I got the wrong stadium. (madmiked/Creative Commons)

Pitching Matchups

Thursday (5:10 PM ET) J.A. Happ (vs. Rays) vs. Yonny Chirinos (vs. Yankees)

The Yankees have seen the right-handed Chirinos three times this season and are 2-1 in games started/relieved heavily by him. In his last appearance at Yankee Stadium, he allowed homers to DJ LeMahieu and Cameron Maybin while Masahiro Tanaka shut out Tampa Bay.

Chirinos lives off his hard sinkers to get ahead in the count or when behind in the count before turning to his splitter and slider and out-pitches. New York has yet to hit him very hard, though neither has the American League as the right-hander features a 3.10 ERA, well-outpacing his 4.31 FIP.

Chirinos (Baseball Savant)

Friday (7:10 PM ET) Masahiro Tanaka (vs. Rays) vs. Brendan McKay (never faced Yankees)

McKay will be making just his second career start after receiving a call-up Saturday to face Texas. The top prospect shined against the Rangers, allowing just one hit and walk over six scoreless innings.

The left-hander is a potential difference maker in the AL playoff race as a two-way player for Tampa Bay. He was the No. 17 prospect according to Baseball America in their latest update and for good reason: He has a 1.22 ERA over 66 2/3 innings while shooting through Double- and Triple-A this season. On offense, he’s a first baseman and DH, but his pitching is far ahead of his offense and he likely won’t bat in this series.

On the hill, McKay works hitter with strong command and a low-to-mid 90s fastball while locating his curveball and changeup. I’m fascinating by this matchup for the Yankees as there can’t be a much better test for the McKay.

Saturday (4:10 PM ET) CC Sabathia (vs. Rays) vs. Blake Snell (vs. Yankees)

You probably remember Blake Snell’s last start against the Yankees. It was the worst of his career as the Bombers tagged him for six runs despite him recording just one out. He simply didn’t have command and the Yankees waited him out over seven grueling at-bats.

Snell may have figured things out. In his most recent outing, he struck out 12, walked none, and allowed just two runs to the Rangers on Sunday. That’s much closer to the Snell you expect as reigning Cy Young winner.

Overall, Snell has a 4.87 ERA and 3.35 FIP as his strikeout and walk numbers have actually improved, but he’s seen more balls fly out of the park. Hitters are just seeing him better as he’s allowed three more hits per nine innings.

Snell (Baseball Savant)

Sunday (1:10 PM ET) James Paxton (vs. Rays) vs. Charlie Morton (vs. Yankees)

With Snell out of Cy Young conversation, Morton is firmly in. The former Astros right-hander has excelled in his first season in Tampa Bay, earning his second straight All-Star appearance.

Morton leads the American League with a 2.35 ERA and 2.87 FIP over 107 innings with 132 strikeouts compared to just 75 hits and 35 walks. The 35-year-old has seen a late career renaissance since Houston sprinkled its analytical fairy dust on him and instructed him to aim for strikeouts instead of using his ineffective sinker.

Everything with Morton comes back to his curveball. It’s a high-spin offering that the right-hander uses more than a third of the time. It’s his most frequent pitch. The Yankees are one of the few teams to get to Morton, tagging him for five runs in May.

Morton (Baseball Savant)

Bullpen Status

Ryne Stanek opened Wednesday’s game while Austin Pruitt tossed five innings in relief. Pruitt may be was optioned for a fresh arm in right-hander Jake Faria.

Fireballing southpaw Jose Alvarado is back and sits in the back of the bullpen alongside right-hander Emilio Pagan. Alvarado gave up six (!) runs in Wednesday’s loss. Right-hander Chaz Roe has struggled recently despite his frisbee slider, so he may not get his normal middle relief work.

Adam Kolarek is Tampa’s LOOGY while rookie Colin Poche is the lefty-strikeout specialist. Poche tossed two innings Wednesday. Righties Andrew Kittredge and Oliver Drake can work middle relief or mop-up duty.

Storylines

Sweep the leg

The Yankees face the Rays in eight of their next 11 games and have a chance to turn the AL East into a laugher. It doesn’t need to be a sweep, but if the Yankees just take five of eight or even split, they’ll hold a significant advantage on Montreal/Tampa Bay.

McKay and Morton

It’s worth emphasizing these two pitchers. With Tyler Glasnow out and Blake Snell still finding himself, the Rays need their other starters to carry them. Morton has been doing so and his rookie counterpart has an opportunity to change the complexion of the Ex-Rays’ season with a strong rookie campaign.