Yankees’ summer slump gives Rays a chance to become AL East title contenders

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fl., — The Yankees’ summer meltdown in July and worst performance in August has cut their leads over the Rays from 15 to 6 games. The Tampa Bay team, which had notched the AL-best 18-9 in August, has suddenly emerged on the scene as a real contender for the AL East crown.

The Yankees dominated the first half of the season. By the third week, they were on top of the AL East, and by Father’s Day, they had a 10-game lead.

But since the Yankees have been struggling for the last two months, their lead has reduced substantially. On the other hand, the Rays have been on a roll in August, there is suddenly no reason not to.

Well, Rays pitcher Drew Rasmussen said, we’ve got a chance.

On July 10, the Rays had just been swept in Cincinnati and lost Wander Franco and Kevin Kiermaier. They were 15 1/2 games behind the Yankees and fighting for one of three AL wild-card spots.

In 44 games, the Rays cut the Yankees’ lead by 9 1/2 games. Now, they only have 33 races left, including six that are head-to-head.

Both teams are going to play their first game at Tropicana Field on Friday. This is the beginning of the back-to-back weekend series and may decide the title race. With just six games behind the Yankees, the Rays see a chance to surge ahead of New York.

We need to beat them, outfielder Randy Arozarena said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. The more we can beat them, the closer we can get. … Everyone’s happy to play against them, and everyone’s excited for it.

Added infielder Yandy Diaz, via Navarro: All the games we play against them are always good games. It doesn’t matter how many games they are in front of us. We’re there to have a good series.

The Rays have had to deal with injuries and inconsistent play all season. While the Yankees are without many of their stars, Tampa Bay feels the absence of starter Shane McClanahan and second baseman Brandon Lowe.

Not wavering at all, Lowe said. We’ve battled through so much adversity, we’ve gotten ourselves into, honestly, as good a position as we could have asked for coming down the stretch, with the Yankees seemingly in reach and a bunch of games against them.

There will be added juice and more fans at Tropicana Field this weekend when the Rays versus the Yankees contest boils down to the title race. Both teams have a history of fighting for the championship, including the 2020 playoff series.

At 72-57 and assured of the fourth straight playoff, Tampa Bay looks more eager to cement their title credential, which has received a boost with back-to-back division titles.

It’s not even the fact that it’s the Yankees — it’s first place, Lowe said.

I think it’s just kind of gotten to a point of what we’ve done over the past few years. And first place just feels so much better than first wild-card. So I think everybody in this locker room will tell you the same thing — that we’re trying to shoot to make it very interesting here down the stretch.

The Rays have already done this. In 2011, they were nine games out of a playoff spot on September 3, but Evan Longoria’s walk-off homer gave them a spot in the wild card.

The Rays need to keep playing well if they want to close the gap. The season series is 8-5 in favor of the Yankees, who are 79-52. Eleven of the games have been decided by one or two runs, most recently on August 17, when Josh Donaldson‘s walk-off grand slam stopped the Rays from sweeping in New York.

It will help if the Yankees keep losing. In August, they were 10-18 and flew overnight to Tampa Bay after losing four of five games.

After Wednesday’s loss, manager Aaron Boone said that injuries have been a problem for the team.

But that said, we have all the pieces right now to be able to go out and win baseball games, and that’s what we’ve got to take care of, he said. The unfortunate part of the last several weeks for us has been we’ve been losing those close games, and that’s what we got to find a way to punch through.

I think a big part of that is just getting a few guys going from a performance standpoint, from a health standpoint. If we can do that, like I’ve said, it’s right there in front of us.

The Rays say they aren’t looking too far ahead at what might be coming up.

Rasmussen said, “It would be really cool to win the division. But at this point, winning is all that matters. Come to the field every day and win.

You can’t control what happens in other clubhouses or on the field somewhere else. But if we show up and we prepare and execute the way we can, I really like our chances day in and day out.

Who do you think will emerge as the winner in the Yankees vs Rays race for AL East title? Will the Yankees find their rhythm back?

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