The Tampa Bay Rays own the American League’s best record and the league’s No. 1 seed in the 2020 MLB playoffs. The New York Yankees were the AL’s favorites coming into the season before an up-and-down regular season netted them the No. 5 seed.
After both swept their way through this postseason’s new Wild Card Series, the two AL East rivals with a history of bad blood and dust-ups are set to square off in San Diego with a spot in the ALCS on the line. Here’s how both teams got here, keys to the series and more.
Why this ALDS is worth the hype
The history of run-ins between these two division foes goes back further than you might think, but you don’t have to go back nearly that far to understand that the dislike between the teams is real and it could boil over again at any given moment.
Things have been particularly heated between the teams since a series in September 2018, and neither side seemingly has let it go. In a game Aug. 31, the Rays pitched up and in on DJ LeMahieu, and Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka picked things up in the first inning the following night with a pitch at Joey Wendle’s feet before drilling him in the side. Fair enough.
But fireballer Aroldis Chapman turned up the temperature in the ninth, when he came high and tight (at 95-plus mph) on Wendle and Austin Meadows before throwing a 101 mph pitch in the vicinity of Mike Brosseau’s head. Brosseau was able to duck out of the way, but needless to say, words were exchanged all around, with Rays manager Kevin Cash delivering a pointed postgame message.
“We’re talking about a 100 mph fastball over a young man’s head,” Cash said. “It makes no sense. It’s poor judgment, poor coaching, it’s just poor teaching what they’re doing and what they’re allowing to do, the chirping from the dugout. Somebody’s got to be accountable. And the last thing I’ll say on this is I got a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph. Period.”
There were no HBPs the following night, but Brosseau hit a pair of home runs and Tampa Bay made sure the reaction from the dugout was loud and clear.
Numbers to know
Series odds: The Rays are 54.9% to beat the Yankees. (Odds from ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle)
Season series: Rays won season series 8-2.
Yankees’ 2020 MLB playoffs number to know: The Yankees are the fourth team to score at least 20 runs through its first two games of a postseason. Each of the previous three went to the World Series and two won it.
Rays’ 2020 playoffs number to know: Tampa Bay’s six-run second inning in Game 2 against the Blue Jays was their most in a single inning in franchise postseason history.
Game 1: Monday, Oct. 5, TBS
Game 2: Tuesday, Oct. 6, TBS
Game 3: Wednesday, Oct. 7, TBS
Game 4: Thursday, Oct. 8, TBS (if necessary)
Game 5: Friday, Oct. 9, TBS (if necessary)
How they got here
Yankees: New York entered the season with big expectations after adding prized free-agent ace Gerrit Cole to a roster that won 103 games and reached the 2019 ALCS, but injuries and inconsistency caused the Bombers to fall to the American League’s No. 5 seed with a 33-27 record. The home run-reliant lineup led the AL in runs scored during the regular season, but the pitching behind Cole struggled to a middle-of-the-pack 4.35 ERA.
Rays: Powered by a dominant pitching staff that features three potential aces in Blake Snell, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay ran away with the AL East race and edged Oakland for the league’s best mark. Brandon Lowe was the only true offensive standout in a lineup that finished 12th in the majors with 289 runs scored and produced a team OPS of .753
Keys for the Yankees
1. Sniff out the fastballs
At a certain level, the Rays’ vaunted pitching strategies are simple and traditional. They pound the strike zone with hard stuff. No team had a higher percentage of their hard pitches find the zone than Tampa Bay. Then they go out of the zone to make you chase with soft or breaking stuff. No staff induced a higher chase rate. The results are simple to read, but the paths the Rays take to get them are complicated and customized to every opponent and every game.
For the Yankees, doing damage on the hard stuff is imperative. No team scored more runs per game on hard pitches than New York. Only two teams had a higher home run percentage or OPS. Those rankings drop to the middle of the pack against soft and breaking stuff, and that’s against New York’s entire schedule, not just the elite staff of the Rays. New York has seen the Rays’ parade of pitchers 10 times this year. Fans of the Bombers better hoped those encounters helped create a better road map to hittable fastballs than the one that led to eight losses in 10 games and only 34 runs scored against Tampa Bay during the regular season.
2. Capitalize on Cole
Thanks to the four-day break between the quick end to the wild-card round for these teams and the first game of the ALDS, both clubs will get to reset their pitching staffs. For the Yankees, that means Cole will get another series opener. It also means that if the series goes the distance, Cole could be positioned for a possible Game 5 start on three days’ rest. The problem is he has never pitched on three days’ rest, in the regular season or the postseason.
First, the Yankees need to win Cole’s start. Though Snell, his likely opponent in Game 1, is a worthy adversary, the pitching advantage rests with the Yankees almost any time Cole takes the hill. The rest of a series of short, micromanaged outings that would ensue is the type of setup that the Rays are made for. It is hard to envision the Yankees surviving the Rays without taking the Cole game. Then what about Game 5? Do you ask Cole to do something he has never done, or do you go with your No. 4 starter, probably one of J.A. Happ, Jordan Montgomery of Deivi Garcia. You could also bullpen it. Well, one thing that would grease these wheels is for the Yankees to strike early and often in Game 1, get Cole out of the game with a lead and low pitch count, and go from there. The early innings of this series might tells a lot about how it eventually plays out.
3. Keep the Rays in the yard
The yard, in this case, is in Southern California, at Petco Park, the unlikely venue for this showdown between AL East rivals. The Rays out-homered the Yankees 16-13 during the regular season and plated 27 of their 46 runs against New York via the longball. According the Statcast, only one of those dingers — a Ji-Man Choi shot off Cole on Aug. 31 — would not have left the yard in San Diego. The Rays are not as homer dependent for their runs as New York, so the Yankees cannot afford to lose the home run battle in this matchup. — Bradford Doolittle
Keys for the Rays
1. Do you what you did in the regular season
The Rays won the season series 8-2 and they did it by quieting the Yankees bats, holding them to just 34 runs. Against the Rays, the Yankees homered once every 24.3 at-bats; against everyone else, they homered once every 19.7 at-bats. Against the Rays, the Yankees hit .218; against everyone else, they hit .253. It’s worth noting that the Yankees rarely had their full lineup in play. LeMahieu missed three of the 10 games, Aaron Judge missed six and Giancarlo Stanton missed seven. In those 10 games, Cash rarely went long with the starting pitcher; only three times did the starter make it through five innings, with the longest stint being Glasnow’s six scoreless innings on Aug. 31, when he beat Cole.
What worked for Rays pitchers? The Yankees hit .252/.364/.441 against fastballs of 95-plus, but that fell to .230/.348/.419 against Rays’ fastballs of 95-plus and the Rays will throw a lot of pitches at 95-plus, beginning with starters Glasnow and Snell, and including relievers Diego Castillo, Peter Fairbanks and Nick Anderson. As you would expect, however, Tampa’s wipeout pitches were breaking balls. The Yankees hit .126 against curveballs and sliders against the Rays with a 43.3% strikeout rate. The Yankees will have to as many of those two-strike counts as possible, so it will be interesting to see how aggressive they are early in the count, an approach that worked well against Shane Bieber in the wild-card round.
2. How does Cash work Games 4 and 5?
The first three games are rather straightforward. If Cash uses the same order as he did against the Blue Jays, it would be Snell, Glasnow and then Morton. If the series goes beyond three games, that’s when things get interesting. Ryan Yarbrough and rookie Josh Fleming would be next in line. Both are soft-tossing lefties, although were very good in the regular season. You might think those are the type of pitchers the Yankees eat for lunch given the right-handed nature of their lineup, but the Yankees actually hit right-handers much better (.811 OPS versus .704 against lefties).
Don’t be surprised if Cash uses an opener in both games, using one of his power righty relievers to get through that tough top of the Yankees line that includes MLB batting champ LeMahieu in the leadoff spot, Judge batting second and MLB home run champ Luke Voit in the cleanup spot. In a late-season game against the Mets, Cash started Fairbanks, went to sidearmer Ryan Thompson and then brought in Fleming as the bulk guy. That could be a strategy to deploy with both Fleming or Yarbrough. Game 5 would be another interesting scenario, given how carefully the Rays handled Snell this year, easing him along early on and then using him on five days’ rest for six starts in a row before his final start on four days of rest. With that in mind, it seems unlikely they would bring him back on short rest for a Game 5, other than maybe an inning in relief.
3. Are Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Diaz ready to go?
Choi and Diaz missed the end of the regular season with injuries and were on the roster against the Blue Jays. Both played in the second game, with Choi going 0-for-2 with a strikeout and Diaz going 0-for-2 with two walks. Both are needed, as Cash has to take advantage of his full roster to maximize a lineup that lacks the star power of New York’s — remember, this was the team that became the first team to start nine left-handed batters in a game. Choi hit .364/.433/.654 against the Yankees in nine games, including a home run off Cole. Diaz had a .444 OBP against lefties, making him an important weapon against Happ and relievers Zack Britton and Chapman. With the expanded 28-man rosters, all this added versatility is huge matchup opportunity for the Rays. Look for a lot of pinch-hitting and platoons. — David Schoenfield