Preview: Wilmer Font, Rays look to cool off Yankees, avoid 4-game sweep

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NEW YORK — Through their first 66 games, the New York Yankees have shaken hands 46 times to celebrate a win.

While some of the big names such as Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius have experienced slumps, a consistent bat is Aaron Judge.

Judge is following up winning Rookie of the Year by constantly delivering key hits for the Yankees, who go for the four-game sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.

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After setting a rookie record with 52 homers, Judge is batting .283 with 18 homers and 46 RBIs to go along with a .399 on-base percentage and 49 runs. He leads the Yankees in homers, RBIs and runs scored while his 17 doubles are second-most behind rookie Miguel Andujar.

“He’s just such a good player,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Even when Aaron goes through a few days where he’s not swinging great, the at-bat quality doesn’t really change all that much. You know night in and night out, he’s going to make it really hard on the pitchers and they understand that they have to make their best pitches just to retire him.”

Judge left the homers to Stanton and Sanchez on Saturday but contributed a pair of doubles in a 4-1 victory. He is 8-for-18 on the homestand and has 19 hits in his last 63 at-bats.

“That’s one of my main goals every year, just try to be consistent, especially with the lineup we got,” Judge said. “If I can consistently get on base for the guys around me, I feel like we’ll have a pretty good game.”

Judge’s contributions to the latest win occurred on a day when Sanchez homered for the first time since May 19 at Kansas City against the Royals. He had a bases-clearing double Friday and snapped a 66 at-bat stretch without a homer.

Even with some of the ebbs and flows of some other hitters, the Yankees own the best record in baseball and are 13-3 in their last 16 games.

“We’ve had timely hits, big hits, guys step up,” Stanton said. We haven’t all clicked at the same time. Once that happens and we’re on all cylinders, there’s more room to get better.”

Tampa Bay is hoping Sunday is not when everything clicks for the Yankees given its recent history.

Only Matt Duffy‘s ninth-inning homer avoided a second straight shutout. The Rays are 4-12 in their last 16 and on a nine-game road losing streak.

“It’s frustrating losing games,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said after his team mustered five hits and struck out 10 times. “You want these guys to come up here and experience success personally and as a team and the good thing is, we talk about it all the time, these guys have won together, they’re going to be able to withstand some tough stretches.”

It has been a particularly tough stretch for the Rays against the Yankees. They are 0-5 in the season series while getting outscored 31-10.

Tampa Bay is also 10-24 in its last 34 games against the Yankees since Aug. 12, 2016, and 4-18 in its last 22 trips to New York since. That was the day Alex Rodriguez played his last game and one day before Judge made his major league debut.

“That’s a good hitting team,” Duffy said. “We’ve held them to a pretty modest amount of runs considering what they’re capable of, especially in their home park.”

After Luis Severino dominated for eight innings Saturday, CC Sabathia will start for the 522nd time in his career and when he does, he will break a tie with Hall of Famer Jim Palmer and former teammate Andy Pettitte for 38th place on the all-time list.

Sabathia will also go for his 242nd career win, which is one behind former Cleveland Indians teammate Bartolo Colon and Hall of Famer Juan Marichal for 54th on the all-time list.

The left-hander is 4-1 with a 3.15 ERA in 10 starts since returning from a brief disabled list stint April 19. He last pitched Tuesday against the Washington Nationals when he became the fifth pitcher to get 1,500 strikeouts with the Yankees and allowed four hits in 5 2/3 innings of a 3-0 victory.

Overall, Sabathia is at 2,893 strikeouts and inching closer to becoming the 17th pitcher to reach 3,000 strikeouts, though he was not aware he reached 1,500 after striking out Michael A. Taylor on Tuesday.

The left-hander is 16-14 with a 3.77 ERA in 45 career starts against the Rays. His 45 starts and 296 innings pitched against Tampa Bay are his most against any opponent.

Sabathia is 5-0 with a 3.57 ERA in his last seven starts against the Rays.

Tampa Bay will use a reliever to open the game for the second straight time. After Ryne Stanek started by throwing 21 pitches in 1 1/3 innings Saturday, Wilmer Font will pitch.

“It’s weird,” Stanton said of Tampa Bay’s unorthodox strategy. “It’s just like a guy coming out of the pen, how you prep for him, except you do it at the beginning of the game. Get ready for the starter. It’s weird, out of order, but the same sequence.”

Font is 0-1 with a 2.31 ERA in six appearances since joining the Rays last month and Sunday will be his third start for the Rays. On Wednesday, he threw 66 pitches and allowed two hits in 3 1/3 innings during a 1-0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Rays will make a roster move as shortstop Christian Arroyo will be placed on the disabled list with a strained oblique and Adeiny Hechavarria will be recalled from his rehab assignment after missing 28 games with a strained right hamstring.