Monday night, the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays open an important four-game series at Yankee Stadium. The two AL East rivals have been battling it out atop the division all season and this week could determine whether the Yankees run away with it, or whether we’ll have a true race in the second half.

Here are the AL East standings as of Monday morning:

  1. New York Yankees: 59-32
  2. Tampa Bay Rays: 55-40 (6 GB)
  3. Boston Red Sox: 50-43 (10 GB)
  4. Toronto Blue Jays: 35-59 (25 1/2 GB)
  5. Baltimore Orioles: 28-65 (32 GB)

“These are a big four games,” Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. “We’re going to try to close that gap on them. They’ve been playing great baseball all year and obviously we’ve had our trouble with them this whole year.”

While speaking to reporters, including Dan Martin of the New York Post, Yankees manager Aaron Boone added: “There’s no question those games take on more meaning because of where we are in the standings and them being in our division, so of course they take on more importance.”

Here are the details for this week’s four-game series at Yankee Stadium. Select games can be streamed regionally on fuboTV (try for free).

Date Start Time Starting Pitchers TV

Mon., July 15

7:05 p.m. ET

LHP Blake Snell (5-7, 4.70) vs. LHP James Paxton (5-4, 4.01)

YES, Fox Sports Sun

Tues., July 16

7:05 p.m. ET

TBA vs. LHP CC Sabathia (5-4, 4.03)

YES, Fox Sports Sun

Weds., July 17

7:05 p.m. ET

RHP Yonny Chirinos (8-4, 3.11) vs. RHP Domingo German (11-2, 3.40)

YES, Fox Sports Sun, ESPN

Thurs., July 18

7:05 p.m. ET

RHP Charlie Morton (11-2, 2.35) vs. LHP J.A. Happ (7-5, 4.93)

YES, Fox Sports Sun, MLBN

The Rays are expected to use an opener, likely righty Ryne Stanek (0-2, 3.14), to start Tuesday’s game. Stanek — who was nearly part of MLB history on Sunday in Baltimore — has been Tampa’s primary opener all year. Lefty Jalen Beeks (5-0, 2.79) is then expected to be the bulk innings guy out of the bullpen.

“I don’t think we need to go into the mentality of going in and pressing, but there’s definitely some form of a sense of urgency,” Rays infielder Joey Wendle told Topkin. “I think there should be, and that’s appropriate. At the same time, we have to stick with what got us to this point as a team.”

Here is what you need to know going into this week’s vital four-game series in the Bronx.

The Yankees have dominated the season series

It feels like the Yankees and Rays have played each other every other week this season. This is already their fifth series of the year — their sixth and final series is a quick little two-gamer in late September — and, to date, the Yankees have dominated the season series. They are 9-4 against the Rays this year and have outscored them 72-39.

At Yankee Stadium, the Yankees are 5-1 against the Rays this season and they’ve outscored them 39-14. They held Tampa to four runs total in a three-game sweep last month, and, back in May, they stunned the Rays with a ninth inning walk-off.

“First of all, the trouble is because they’re a really good team,” Rays manager Kevin Cash told Topkin about his team’s trouble with the Yankees this year. “Besides that, it’s a different atmosphere. We found a way to overcome that a little bit last year. We’ve got to get back to doing that. Every ballgame it seems like we’re in, but you can’t just be in them, you’ve got to find ways to win them. We’ve got to do a better job of that this coming series.” 

Snell is starting to get his groove back

Snell’s Cy Young follow-up season has not gone as hoped. He carries a 4.70 ERA into Monday night’s start, and opponents have hit .251/.315/.410 against him. That’s not truly awful, but it is a heck of a lot worse than the .178/.254/.300 batting line Snell allowed last season.

Four starts ago the Yankees tagged Snell for six runs in one-third of an inning, then the next time out the Twins punished him for seven runs in 3 1/3 innings. Ouch. Snell’s final two starts of the first half were pretty good though, including one against the Yankees at Tropicana Field last weekend.

Date Result IP H R ER BB K HR

June 30 vs. Rangers

6-2 win

6

3

2

2

0

12

1

July 6 vs. Yankees

4-3 win

5

5

1

1

2

5

1

We’re still waiting for the Cy Young version of Snell to show up this season, and, frankly, now that we’re in the second half, the less likely it is he will return this year. Snell can still be very good though — very, very good — and the Rays intentionally lined him up him for the opener at Yankee Stadium this week because they want their ace to set the tone for the series.

“We know it’s important. We know we’ve got to come out hot and ready to go,” Snell told Topkin. “We know how difficult they are to beat at home.”

Several Yankees have struggled in July

The Yankees have won 18 of their last 23 games but several players in their lineup have struggled offensively this month. Here are some July numbers:

Despite those four hitting the skids this month, the Yankees have continued to win because their pitching has been rock solid, and because others like Aaron Judge (.313/.405/.531), Aaron Hicks (.321/.424/.679), Brett Gardner (.382/.432/.765), and Gio Urshela (.292/.346/.500) have torn the cover off the ball in July.

“We wouldn’t be in first place right now if we didn’t have Gio,” Judge told reporters, including NJ.com’s Randy Miller, after Urshela drove in two runs and scored another in Sunday’s win (NYY 4, TOR 2).

There is bad blood here

Although things have yet to devolve into a benches-clearing brawl, the Yankees and Rays clearly do not like each other. There’s some bad blood here, and it dates back to last September, when Sabathia drilled then-Rays catcher Jesus Sucre in retaliation for Andrew Kittredge throwing behind Austin Romine’s head. That earned Sabathia a five-game suspension.

So far during the season series there have been four hit-by-pitches on each side, which isn’t an outrageous total through 13 games, but the timing of some were questionable (after home runs), plus there were several other near misses. Clearly, there is no love lost here. There are more important things at stake this week, but don’t be surprised if tempers boil over at some point.

Prediction

As well as the Rays have played overall this season, the Yankees have had their number, and have done a very good job beating them at their own game with pitching and defense. The prediction here is the Yankees put their foot on Tampa’s throat this week and win three of four. Specifically, I’ll say the Yankees win the first three games before Morton salvages the finale for the Rays. At some point this week Gregorius will hit an enormous home run. It has been foretold.

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