It seems slightly ridiculous that with the AL East division title on the line, the Yankees play a three game set at Fenway to close out the regular season, while the Rays have a four game set at Kansas City's Kaufman Stadium to end theirs.
I'm not alleging any impropriety on the part of the schedule makers, it's simply a by-product of a complicated scheduling process. The Yankees and Rays finished with a three game set against each other in Tampa last year, so it's not like this year's scenario is something that occurs regularly.
With the Rays and Yankees now again tied atop the American League East, whichever team wins the most games in their final weekend series will take the division crown, as well as home-field advantage through the first two series of the post-season. If they end up with the same record at the end of the weekend, the Rays will have earned the tie-breaker with their head-to-head record of 10-8 versus the Yankees in 2010.
Not only will home-field advantage be decided, but each team's playoff opponent has yet to be determined. Whichever team wins the East will then host the Texas Rangers to begin the ALDS , with the Wild-Card winner traveling to Minnesota to challenge the Twins at Target Field. It is assumed by many that the Yankees wouldn't mind the Wild-Card, considering their run of success against the Twins ball-club, but realistically, relinquishing home-field advantage could be a steep price to pay. Playing the first two games of a playoff series at home can be a significant boost to your club's prospects of playing deep into October.
Before the Yankees have the opportunity to look ahead however, they have one massive series at Fenway remaining. Of course, with entrance into the playoffs already guaranteed, the straits may not seem as dire for the Yankees, but a series in Boston is never a simple proposition. Though the Red Sox hopes for 2010 have been dashed, one can be sure that they are relishing their opportunity to play spoilers for their perennial rivals.
Even if a playoff berth isn't riding on this series, there are still many critical factors at play this weekend. Tonight's pitching match-up of Andy Pettitte versus Dice-K represents an opportunity for the Yankee left-hander to put together a positive outing before heading into the playoffs. His previous start, last weekend against the Red Sox in the Bronx, Andy was hit hard, allowing 10 hits and 6 earned runs in only 3.1 innings, while also experiencing back stiffness. He needs to refine his stuff and prove tonight that his health won't be a concern in the post-season.
Tomorrow's afternoon meeting also presents no opportunity to relax. In what can be viewed as an absolutely critical outing for Yankee starter A.J. Burnett, he's fighting to earn a job for the Yankees in the playoffs. Currently, with his drastic swings between decent and absolutely atrocious, it is difficult to envision relying on him in October. On the other side, Clay Buchholz is fighting a different type of battle, as he is a prime candidate in the race for the AL Cy Young award. At 17-7 with a stellar 2.33 ERA, he should be right in the mix for the coveted award. Tomorrow is his last opportunity to leave an indelible impression upon voters.
Sunday's match-up is yet to be decided, as John Lackey has been named for the Red Sox, but the Yankees have yet to make that decision. Depending upon the results of the first two games for the Yankees, as well as the Rays, the division could be decided by then. If so, then Sunday could be viewed as a day to get some regulars a little rest, and to provide a little work for several relievers who won't get to pitch again until Wednesday at the earliest. Likely though, the drama will go down to the last day.
As Yankee fans, we have to hope the Yanks go 2-0 on Friday and Saturday, while the Rays go 0-2, so that Sunday doesn't have to be managed like a crucial must-win clash. A three-game Yankees vs. Red Sox set can feel just like a post-season series, with sold-out crowds and the animosity of a long-time rivalry fueling the drama and tension. The Yankees have to be careful to not exhaust themselves in Boston immediately preceding their Division Series action.
Although it may seem like Tampa have it easy by facing Kansas City this weekend, it's not necessarily the case. They're only 2-3 against the Royals this season, and were just defeated by Zack Greinke yesterday. Now that he's out of the way though, the KC starters don't appear intimidating on paper, but the Royals have pride to play for, and the desire to end their season on a positive note. After James Shields tonight, the Rays don't have tomorrow's starter set, and then Wade Davis will go on Sunday. Davis has been solid, but Shields has been wildly inconsistent, and just finished a terrible September in which he posted an ERA of 7.00. He'll be looking to turn that around and earn himself the trust of Joe Maddon before pitching decisions are made for October.
Kansas City will send Bruce Chen, Kyle Davies, and Sean O'Sullivan to the mound over the next three days. Davies and O'Sullivan have struggled in 2010, but Chen has pitched like an ace for the last month, going 2-0 with a 3.38 ERA in 5 September starts. The Royals may not have an impressive record, but playing for pride can never be underestimated.
On paper, it certainly appears that the Rays have an easier path towards winning the AL East division title, but thankfully they still play the games, and as baseball fans, we should have learned by now that anything can happen in this wonderful game of ours. While a Rays vs. Royals series can never hope to match the intensity of a Yankees vs. Red Sox match-up, the ownership of home-field advantage until the World Series rests upon these next three days, and will certainly not be taken lightly. Even if both the Rays and Yankees pretend they're not as concerned with winning the division...they are.