Friday September 24th, 2010

NEW YORK -- The Yankees' ace in the hole in their games with the Rays had been, well, their ace, the left-hander who on Thursday left the game in a very big hole.

CC Sabathia took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against Tampa Bay in April and threw eight shutout innings of two-hit ball against them just last week. In four starts against his team's competition for the American League East title, he was only 1-1, but carried a 1.84 ERA and held them to a .186 average. The rest of the Yankees' rotation was 2-7 in 13 starts against Tampa Bay with a 6.95 ERA and a .290 average against.

On Thursday night, however, the Rays finally got to Sabathia, working four hits and two walks -- with all six of them scoring -- in a huge seven-run sixth inning. Tampa Bay went on to win 10-3, not just cutting New York's AL East lead to a half-game but allowing the Twins to move a half-game ahead of the Yankees for best record and home-field advantage in the league. While New York has six more games against the Red Sox, Tampa Bay's schedule is considerably easier, with three games against Seattle and four more with the Royals.

"I know on paper it looks good," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of his team's chances to win the division. "but from my perspective, I don't take anything for granted. I've been an anti-assumptionist for the past several years, and I don't want to start now."

Also in the Rays' favor is that they won the season series with the Yankees 10-8 and now hold the tie-breaker should the teams finish tied at the end of the regular season.

In last week's series at Tropicana Field, these two combatants played three consecutive one-run games, two of which that weren't settled until extra innings, and in doing so looked like the best teams in baseball, bar none. They may still be, but it was tough to gauge in this series, as it lacked that same energy.

There was not the hint of urgency like there had been the previous week. By the end of the previous series, the Red Sox were an improbable but not impossible six games out of second place and the wild card lead. That's the same margin they trail now -- but with another precious week ticked off the calendar.

Also contributing to the at times lackluster play in this series was that the games themselves didn't have much drama -- only one was settled by fewer than five runs and a two-hour rain delay sapped the life out of one game -- but mostly it's because Yankees manager Joe Girardi didn't seem to care if his club won or not. He pitched Chad Gaudin in a pair of high-leverage situations including a bases-loaded, one-run game. And, on Thursday night, Girardi threw in the white towel when he replaced eight of his nine players with two innings to go, such a wholesale change that New York even forfeited the designated hitter.

Sure, the Yankees trailed by seven runs, but when has that lineup not been capable of scoring seven runs in two innings? They could have at least tried. It's almost as if Girardi was implicitly saying that picking the first-round opponent is more important than the location. If the Yankees are the wild card, they'd yield home-field advantage but face the Twins; if the Yankees win the division, they'll claim home field, but face Cliff Lee and the Rangers.

But home-field advantage ought to be the more important factor for the Yankees for three reasons: 1) it would hold for both the ALDS and ALCS; 2) the Yankees have a great home record; and 3) the only AL team with a better home record is the Twins.

New York is 51-27 (.653) at home and 41-34 (.547) on the road, a split of 106 points of winning percentage. For comparison's sake, the Rays are 46-29 (.613) at home while 45-32 (.584) on the road, a much narrower 29-point split. Tampa Bay, which went 5-4 against the Yankees in both stadiums this year, certainly understands the stakes that home field is more of an advantage for New York.

"Yeah, I would imagine so," Rays starter James Shields said. "They've got good fans here, and they're used to playing in this park."

Before the game Girardi said, "Home field advantage is very important to us. We play very well here. Our club is somewhat built around this ballpark. We will do our best to get that, but we will also be smart about it. I will do everything to try to win the division without hurting our players."

In other words, he talked the talk of caring but with the caveat that he would only allow his team to exert itself to the point that they didn't get hurt. On Thursday, apparently, having his starters play an extra two innings was dangerous.

Girardi was right about his team being constructed for Yankee Stadium. The Yankees' abundance of left-handed power hitters (taking advantage of the short porch to right field) and their strikeout pitchers (preventing opponents from doing the same) is a successful blueprint for winning in the Bronx.

Shields admitted that, when pitching at Yankee Stadium, "You're definitely going to focus a little more on throwing inside on the lefties so that you don't leave it over the plate."

He also said that home-field advantage was less important after the ALDS -- the longer the series, the more likely the superior team's talent will prevail, regardless of location.

That's why Thursday's Rays' win was the most important game of the series: Should the teams meet again in the ALCS, the prospect of facing Sabathia twice in a seven-game series is a little less daunting.

"It definitely gives you confidence knowing that you can at least compete against him," said Rays left fielder Carl Crawford, who had two singles off Sabathia and three hits Thursday. "He was so dominant against us the other night. It feels good to have a game like this and get a little confidence against him going into the playoffs."

Sabathia threw at least 111 pitches in each of his five starts against the Rays, but this time he failed to finish the sixth inning for the first time after going at least 6 2/3 in his prior turns against Tampa Bay.

In the fateful sixth inning he threw 35 pitches to seven batters, 22 of which were to the final three Rays Sabathia faced -- seven pitches to Willy Aybar (RBI single), eight to Kelly Shoppach (walk) and seven more to Sean Rodriguez (RBI walk).

Rays No. 1 starter David Price also wasn't as sharp as in his last outing against New York -- he also threw eight shutout innings in the same game when Sabathia did so last week -- but he logged a just-barely quality start of six innings and three runs for the win.

All of a sudden, the Rays are in prime position to win the division, which, should they capture it, would give them an edge in an ALCS rematch -- not just because they would have home-field advantage but because the Yankees wouldn't.

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