The Yankees open their best-of-five ALDS matchup against the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night at Petco Park in San Diego.
New York lost eight of 10 games to the Rays during the regular season as Tampa finished 40-20 and secured the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, but the Yankees' confidence being high is understandable.
They have their ace on the mound in Game 1, their offense seems to be in top form, and they're in much better shape now health-wise than they were during most of their regular season meetings against the Rays,
This matchup is not going to be easy, though, and that starts at the top with improvement needed from Gerrit Cole. Here are three keys to the Yanks securing a Game 1 win...
Cole needs to provide length and keep the ball in the park
During his three starts against the Rays in the regular season, Cole totaled 16.1 innings on the mound. He was knocked out of his first start against them after just 4.2 innings, recovered to toss 6.2 his second time out, but lasted just 5.0 in his third and final start.
In addition to being unable to provide much length against Tampa, Cole was victimized by the gopher ball, giving up five homers in those 16.1 innings. He was also hit hard in general, allowing 20 hits.
For Cole to have success in Game 1, he needs to locate better. It's easier said than done, but it really is that simple.
And if Cole is able to dominate on Monday night, he'll take significant pressure off a Yankees bullpen that has become quite suspect.
The bullpen needs to turn the page
The Yankees' bullpen nearly coughed up Game 2 of the Wild Card Series against the Indians, with Zack Britton (two walks and two runs in 1.1 IP) and Jonathan Loaisiga (one hit, two walks, and one run in 0.1 IP) the main culprits.
Chad Green escaped his night in Game 2 unscathed, but he allowed three hits in his 1.1 IP stint.
With the Yanks' rotation beyond Cole such a mystery, the bullpen is going to have to pick up a lot of the slack. Doing so against a formidable offense like Tampa's will be more difficult than it was against the offensively-challenged Indians, especially if Adam Ottavino can't straighten out his season-long issues.
Do the little things right
The Yankees were the second-worst fielding team in baseball during the regular season, committing an average of 0.77 errors per game. Contrasting that, the Rays were among the top 10 in the majors when it came to defense, committing an average of 0.53 errors per game.
When Gary Sanchez is behind the plate (which likely won't be the case in Game 1), the Yanks also struggle more than most teams when it comes to keeping the ball from going to the backstop.
In addition to the physical errors, the Yanks have also been hampered by mental errors at times this season. And if they want to beat a savvy team like the Rays, they'll need to clean up both the physical and mental mistakes.