Trailing the AL East-leading Yankees by one game, the Orioles open a pivotal four-game set against their division rival Thursday night at Camden Yards.
A day after losing sole possession of first place, New York (77-59) benefited from a pregame meeting by snapping a three-game skid with a 6-4 win at Tampa Bay on Wednesday. Though the Yankees have lost 10 of 15, they head to Baltimore with a slim division lead after the Orioles’ three-game winning streak ended with a 6-4 loss at Toronto earlier in the evening.
“It’s sink or swim time,” said New York’s Alex Rodriguez, who went 3 for 12 at Tampa after missing more than a month with a broken hand. “We’re going to start playing the brand of baseball we started (Wednesday).”
Both Thursday and Friday games have already sold out, and at least 30,000 are expected for each weekend date.
“It’s fun, I’m looking forward to it,” said Orioles slugger Mark Reynolds, who is 9 for 22 (.409) with four homers and eight RBIs in his last six games versus New York. “This whole weekend should be a great time.”
The Orioles (76-60) have won seven of the last 10 versus New York, including two of three in the Bronx last weekend. However, they have lost four of five in the season series at Camden Yards. The Yankees have won 21 of 29 in Baltimore since last losing a series of at least two games there April 6-9, 2009.
Russell Martin homered and had three RBIs Wednesday and the Yankees scored twice in the seventh inning to break a 4-all tie. The victory came hours after a team meeting manager Joe Girardi hoped would ease the collective minds of a club that owned a 10-game division lead on July 18.
“We just wanted to talk about some of the things that we’re going through,” Girardi said. “The importance of you going through it, you’ve been through it, we’ll come out of it.”
Derek Jeter has done so, going 5 for 9 in the last two games after struggling through an 0-for-9 slump in the previous three. Though two of those games during his slump came against the Orioles, Jeter is batting .341 in his last 20 at Camden Yards.
Rookie David Phelps (3-4, 3.13 ERA) opens the series for the Yankees while making his fifth consecutive start and second straight against the Orioles. The right-hander allowed three runs and walked six in 4 2-3 innings of Saturday’s 4-3 win.
Baltimore counters with Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.54), who makes his first start after missing almost two months with a knee injury. The right-hander posted a 7.78 ERA while losing his last four starts since beating Washington on June 22.
“This is another level,” manager Buck Showalter told the Orioles’ official website. “He’s been out of this for a while.”
Hammel is 0-1 with a 4.91 ERA in two starts versus New York this season.
Rodriguez is 8 for 20 with four homers lifetime off Hammel, while Ichiro Suzuki is 5 for 10.
Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters is batting .181 since Aug. 10 and hasn’t had a multihit game in those 21 contests, but he’s compiled a .396 average while hitting safely in all 14 games against New York in 2012.