The New York Yankees were one of the few teams to handle the Tampa Bay Rays last season, but it was the upstart Rays who won the AL pennant while the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
Now that New York has reloaded, one of baseball’s blossoming rivalries could get even bigger.
The 2009 season series will begin with the Rays’ home opener Tuesday night in St. Petersburg, where left-hander Scott Kazmir was dominant last year in helping Tampa Bay to the league’s best home record.
Going into the season as two of the top contenders in perhaps the toughest division, both the Yankees (3-3) and Rays (3-3) finished their first week at .500, although neither team has played a home game.
While New York is eager to open its new stadium Thursday against Cleveland, Tampa Bay is excited to open the Tropicana Field portion of its schedule. The Rays were a major league-best 57-24 at home last year, with Kazmir going 8-2 with a 2.90 ERA in 14 starts.
They’ll raise both their AL East and AL championship banners before Monday’s game.
“What’s exciting to me is to be able to walk into that building and have the fans as excited as they’re going to be,” Rays manager Joe Maddon told his team’s official Web site, “and to be able to post a banner like that and again validating our last season and the organization where it’s at right now.”
The Yankees were one of the few teams to have even moderate success in St. Petersburg, sweeping a two-game series last April and taking two of three in September. They were 11-7 overall against the Rays—the only division rival and one of just two AL clubs to win the season series against Tampa Bay.
New York won its weekend series at Kansas City, but it couldn’t finish off a sweep Sunday afternoon, when its bullpen blew an eighth-inning lead in a 6-4 defeat.
New York is also looking for more consistency from its revamped starting rotation, which includes high-priced newcomers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. While Burnett will start Tuesday in St. Petersburg, the Yankees will first look for improvement from holdover Chien-Ming Wang in the series opener.
Wang struggled Wednesday in his first start in nearly 10 months, allowing seven runs in 3 2-3 innings of a 7-5 loss at Baltimore. His 2008 season was cut short due to a foot injury, and he didn’t immediately have command of his signature sinker in his return.
“It’s been so long, I just wanted to win so bad,” Wang said through a translator. “Hopefully, I can get my sinker back as soon as possible.”
He may have to be sharp to keep pace with Kazmir, who has allowed two or fewer earned runs in each of his last six starts against the Yankees. He has a 2.51 ERA in 12 career appearances against New York.
The hard-throwing southpaw was sharp in his season debut Wednesday. Kazmir (1-0, 1.50) beat Boston, allowing one run in six innings of a 7-2 victory.
“I thought his last few outings in spring training were very good,” Maddon said. “I really thought he was going to carry it over, and he did.”
After getting shut out Saturday, the Rays’ bats rebounded in an 11-3 win at Baltimore on Sunday, avoiding a three-game sweep. Evan Longoria continued his hot start, going 3-for-5 with his major league-leading fifth home run.
On the heels of his rookie of the year season, Longoria hit .481 with 10 RBIs in his first six games.