After Yankee Stadium hosted 37 World Series and numerous other October epics, it hardly seems fitting that the last homestand at the 85-year-old ballpark will begin with the New York Yankees in fourth place in the AL East - and the visiting Tampa Bay Rays atop the division.
Instead of New York battling for a 14th consecutive postseason berth, it will be the Rays chasing their first AL East crown on Friday night when the teams open a three-game set with the first of 10 remaining games at the storied stadium.
A mainstay in the Bronx since 1923, Yankee Stadium has compiled perhaps a richer history than any other ballpark, but until this season, the Yankees never hosted a Tampa Bay club holding down first place in September.
Thanks to a pair of tight victories in Boston, that’s exactly where the Rays (87-57) stand. After losing six of seven to see their lead over the Red Sox slip to one-half game, they trailed 4-3 in the ninth inning at Fenway Park on Tuesday and seemed about to slide into second place for the first time since the All-Star break.
But a rally off Jonathan Papelbon gave Tampa Bay a 5-4 win, and the Rays outlasted Boston in a 4-2, 14-inning victory Wednesday, padding their lead to 2 1/2 games over the Red Sox. Carlos Pena’s three-run home run in the final inning broke a long stalemate after the teams had played 10 straight scoreless innings.
“I’d like to believe, and I actually do believe, that we will carry these two games over,” Rays manager Joe Maddon told his team’s official Web site. “I believe we shall. We’re in a good place right now.”
The Rays could get even better over the weekend, with Evan Longoria possibly set to return after missing five weeks due to a broken wrist. The rookie third baseman had 22 home runs and 71 RBIs in 104 games before the injury.
Tampa Bay also has to like its chances with Matt Garza on the mound. James Shields was originally slated to start Friday, with Garza going Saturday, but the right-handers were switched as the Rays line up their rotation for the stretch run.
Garza (11-9, 3.55 ERA) took a hard-luck loss at Toronto on Sunday, allowing the lone run while working seven innings in a 1-0 defeat. It was the fifth time in 10 starts since the All-Star break that he has worked at least seven innings and allowed one or fewer runs.
In each of the other five starts, however, Garza has allowed at least four earned runs, including once against New York (77-69). After pitching seven shutout innings in a 7-1 win against the Yankees on May 12, he gave up six runs - four earned - in five-plus innings of a 7-2 loss on Sept. 2.
New York has been one of the few clubs to handle Tampa Bay this season, winning nine of 15 meetings. The Rays have also lost their last four games at Yankee Stadium, where they are 25-63 all-time.
Still, none of that changes the fact that the Yankees are 11 games behind Tampa Bay and 8 1/2 back of Boston for the wild card, making them almost certain to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
“It’s a bad feeling, especially when you work so hard to prepare yourself for the season and really prepare yourself for October,” pitcher Andy Pettitte said. “Obviously, people think we’re out of the playoffs and guys think they’re out of the playoffs, but I’d hope they would play for some pride.”
Sidney Ponson’s struggles have not helped the Yankees as they’ve failed to launch a late-season push. While he beat Seattle 7-4 on Saturday after allowing three runs in six innings, Ponson (8-5, 5.10) has an 11.49 ERA in his last four starts, allowing 29 hits in 15 2-3 innings.
The Yankees stumble home after losing five of the last seven on a 10-game road trip, with the finale - a 4-2 loss to the Angels - helping Los Angeles clinch the AL West on Wednesday. Due to an injury-riddled rotation and a spotty offense, New York is 19-24 since July 27.
After this series, the Chicago White Sox visit the Bronx for four games before Baltimore comes in for three, with the last contest at the stadium to be played on Sept. 21.