For all the criticisms and overreactions, the New York Yankees are one win (and some other teams’ losses) away from clinching a postseason appearance for the fifth consecutive season.
Thanks to a late September surge — eight wins in nine games, punctuated by a sweep of the Boston Red Sox and enormous road series victory against the Toronto Blue Jays — the Yankees are in prime position to play host to the American League Wild Card game after it was unclear whether they would even make the playoffs a few weeks ago.
Thursday night’s win over the Blue Jays, in which New York tagged AL Cy Young candidate Robbie Ray for four home runs, was an especially big one. Instead of being only one game ahead of the Red Sox, Mariners, and Blue Jays entering the regular season’s final weekend, they have a two-game edge on Boston and Seattle and three-game lead on Toronto. Now, the Yankees finish up at home against the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays don’t have much to play for but they love beating the Yankees whenever they can. Stud rookie Shane McClanahan goes for Tampa Bay against New York’s Nestor Cortés Jr., who has been a godsend for manager Aaron Boone. First pitch from the Bronx is at 7:05 p.m. ET. The BetUS Sportsbook has the Yankees as -118 moneyline favorites and as +155 favorites on the runline. The Rays are +108 moneyline underdogs and -175 underdogs on the runline. MLB odds have the over/under at 8½ runs.
Cortés Keeps Finding Ways
It’s safe to say that the Yankees didn’t expect to rely so heavily on Cortés or that he would be as effective as he has been. The crafty Cuban lefty has, in the last three seasons, been lost by New York in the Rule 5 Draft to the Baltimore Orioles and also traded to Seattle but, somehow, has found his way back to the Yankees each time and is finally thriving. His story has been crazy, yet not as crazy as how well he has pitched.
In 88.1 innings, mostly as a starter after he was plugged into the rotation in July, Cortés has a 2.85 ERA with an opponent batting average of .214 and 1.075 WHIP. He doesn’t walk many batters and has drastically cut down his home run rate to go with a significant strikeout bump (10 strikeouts per nine innings). And, he does all of this without much velocity or any other discernible elite trait.
The key to his success is in his unpredictability, as he is constantly changing his arm angle, hold time and repertoire to keep hitters off-balance. He has also started throwing a cutter, which has been a really effective pitch to go with his four-seam fastball, slider and changeup. He doesn’t overwhelmingly rely on one pitch, so batters need to be ready for all of them in any count.
Cortés has been one of the Yankees’ most consistent pitchers down the stretch as he hasn’t allowed more than three runs in any of his last eight starts. Granted, he usually doesn’t pitch very deep into games but for a New York rotation that has underwhelmed for much of the season in large part due to a rash of injuries, he has been vital. If you’re betting online, look for him to give the Yankees a solid five innings and hand things off to a bullpen that has been untouchable lately.
McClanahan Might Be Limited
At this point in the year, with the division locked up, all the Rays care about is staying healthy and lining up their roster and rotation for the postseason. McClanahan has been awesome for Tampa Bay since being called up and has only allowed two runs in his last three starts, so he’s finishing his rookie season strong. But, it remains to be seen how the Rays will align their staff for the start of the AL Division Series next Thursday, when they play the winner of the AL Wild Card game.
McClanahan seems to be the likely Game 1 starter for Tampa Bay so he could pitch a usual start on Friday night and have five days of rest for the playoff opener. But, he’s also coming off a recent stint on the injured list for back stiffness, so the Rays might want to be as cautious with him as possible.
Due to the uncertainty over McClanahan’s usage and the fact that the Rays are already in postseason mode, the MLB lines have the Yankees favored. Tampa Bay still has a great bullpen that could hold any lead McClanahan brings back, but Kevin Cash will likely not want to over-burden his go-to guys in a meaningless game. New York should benefit from that Friday and throughout the weekend.
New York has Groove Back
The last week-and-a-half has been a return to the kind of baseball that the Yankees envisioned they would be playing all season: Strong starting pitching supported by lots of home runs and an electric back end of the bullpen. Injuries and underperformance from guys like Gleyber Torres, Gary Sánchez and DJ LeMahieu, as well as really poor fielding at times, have hurt the team and kept it from competing with the likes of the Rays and Houston Astros at the top of the AL.
Lately, though, the formula has worked. Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge can’t stop hitting home runs, the starters — surprisingly, other than Gerrit Cole — have stepped up and the relievers (like Chad Green and a healthy Jonathan Loáisiga) have blown through tough lineups on a nightly basis with slim leads. So, it’s not a surprise that the Yankees are finally separating from the pack in the Wild Card race and, in terms of MLB picks, they’re the selection as they inch closer to the playoffs yet again.
Pick: New York Yankees -1½ runs (+155)