Who is the beast of the AL East?

ST. PETERSBERG, Fla. – In recent years, the Boston Red Sox would engage in this conversation and likely be at the epicenter. Yet, the first two months of the current baseball season have not been terribly kind nor gentle. If not for a recent spurt (winning nine of 13 between May 12 and May 26), the traditionally strong Red Sox would likely languish at the bottom of the American League East division.

That current struggle for dominance remains the domain of the New York Yankees and Tampa Rays, who meet here in Tropicana Field over the Memorial Day weekend for the first time this season. This is the start for possession of the division title and among two teams likely destined for several epic battles between the commencement of their season series here in late May and resolution of the division race and wild card placement.

“We have seen the Yankees many times over the last decade,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash before the series began Thursday night. “We certainly appreciate the competition and the ways the series have unfolded. We’re looking just to play good baseball.”

Coming into the series, the Yankees and Rays were among the hottest teams in recent weeks. Over the previous 15 days prior to the start of the series on May 26, New York captured 10 of 15 games and the Rays took eight of 12 contests. The fact that the Yankees had the best record in the game, at 31-13, and ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers (29-14), was not lost. With that mark of 26-17, the Rays entered the series four and one-half games behind and only one-fourth of the season completed.

Most observers agree that pitching and defense win championships. After the opening two months of the season, the Rays appear, in both categories, to be in rather desperate straights. The rotation consists of a group of essential unknowns, but the effort from Ryan Yarborough to open the series was encouraging.

Recovering from right groin tightness, the veteran from Austin, Texas held the Yankees hitless into the sixth inning. In that stretch, Yarbrough retired 14 straight batters at one point and kept hitters off balance with a change, cutter, curve, and sneaky fastball. Going forward, Cash said he will rely on Yarbrough and his crafty disposition, and his ability to get hitters out with deception remains a clear strength.

As well as Yarbrough kept the Rays in the opening game of the series, that’s when he experienced a slight letdown and the defense failed in a perilous situation. A hit batter, two singles, and an error from the usually reliable shortstop Taylor Walls produced three New York runs and that three-spot was the catalyst for a 7-2 New York win.

In the end, Yarbrough lasted 5.1 innings, allowed only two hits, three runs, two earned, and finished with 80 pitches, 53 for strikes.

“I thought my outing was pretty successful,” Yarbrough said after the game. “I just wanted to keep us in the game and give us a chance to win. They have a great line-up and playing great baseball, right now. I was doing what I can to give us a chance to win a ball game.”

Losing may be one factor, but it was the way the Rays lost that could compromise their race to claim the American League East title. That would be an emphasis on defense.

“We will trust (Walls) every time,” Yarborough said and referenced that vital sixth inning error. “Just didn’t work out this time.”

As the Yankees’ series opened, Cash lamented about the shaking Rays’ defense and the necessity for execution. Though Tampa committed two errors in the opening game of the Yankees series, each came during a critical junction in the contest. These mistakes are the crucial faults that could provide a razor-thin margin between victory and defeat.

“Since the start of the season, I like the way our team picks each other up,” Cash said. “Our defense has been good at times and like to see our base-running continue to improve.”

Still, for Tampa to challenge the Yankees and keep Toronto and Boston at arm’s length, the defense needs to tighten, and a sense of urgency needs to permeate through the clubhouse.

Elsewhere … prior to the start of the series, the Yankees signed veteran Matt Carpenter and immediately paced the veteran infielder on the 25-man roster. Within the minutes of arriving at Tropicana Field, the left-handed hitting Carpenter was in the New York lineup and batted eighth against the left-hander Yarbrough, the Rays starter. In his Yankees’ debut, Carpenter officially went 0-2, hit by a pitch, walked, and scored two runs.

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