The New York Yankees have locked up the AL East title. Now, manager Joe Torre wants his team focused on securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Looking to improve their major league-best record, the Yankees send Randy Johnson to the mound Saturday night when they continue a four-game series against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Tropicana Field.
New York (93-60) is 1 1/2 games ahead of Detroit in the race for the best record in the league. The AL earned home-field advantage in the World Series by winning the All-Star game.
“The fact that you won the division is one thing, but the fact that if there’s a chance to have the best record, we want that,” Torre said. “I’m certainly not going to try and tell you that’s not important.”
Johnson (17-10, 4.93 ERA) is 6-1 with a 4.60 ERA over his last nine outings. As evidenced by his high ERA in that span, though, the left-hander has continued to benefit from a lineup that provides him with the highest run support in the major leagues.
The Yankees have scored 64 runs in Johnson’s previous nine starts, and 7.73 per start for him this season—easily the best in baseball.
The five-time Cy Young Award winner is 1-1 with a 9.90 ERA in two starts against Tampa Bay (58-95) this season.
The Yankees’ 4-1 victory in the series opener Friday night was encouraging not just for the win, but for the impressive return of two of their key players.
Closer Mariano Rivera took the mound for the first time since Aug. 31 after being out with a strained right forearm. He struck out the side in the ninth inning despite allowing a single and hitting a batter to earn his 34th save.
“I was anxious. I couldn’t wait to pitch,” Rivera said. “I’m happy I went in there and finished the way I wanted.”
Slugger Gary Sheffield also returned, playing his first game since May 29 due to wrist surgery, and the Yankees gave him his first career start at first base.
Sheffield went 0-for-3 but played well in the field, saving a run with the score tied 1-1 by scooping third baseman Miguel Cairo’s low throw out of the dirt to end the sixth with a runner on third. He also handled a low throw from shortstop Derek Jeter in the fourth.
“I’m treating this like the World Series right now because I’ve got to be ready when it comes to the playoffs,” Sheffield said, conceding he had some anxious moments playing at a new position.
New York wants to take a look at Sheffield at first to see whether he can handle the job in the postseason. With first baseman Jason Giambi sitting out this series because of a small ligament tear in his left wrist that has hampered his hitting, finding a way to get Sheffield’s bat into the lineup could be a big key for the Yankees.
Jeter went 1-for-4 on Friday and is batting .338, six points behind Minnesota’s Joe Mauer for the AL batting lead.
Tampa Bay fell to 3-12 against New York this season after winning the season series 11-8 last year. The Devil Rays have dropped 20 of their last 26 games.
“They’ve got a nice thing going on. They’re healthy. They’re playing probably better than anybody else in the league right now,” Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “They’re playing at a high level, and everybody’s getting well for them at the right moment.”
J.P. Howell (0-3, 6.53) makes his seventh start of the season for Tampa Bay on Saturday. Opponents are batting .350 against him, and he’s pitched past the sixth inning only once.
The left-hander is making his first start this year against the Yankees. He faced them last season with Kansas City and gave up three runs and four hits over six innings in an 8-7 loss Aug. 27.