Orioles-Yankees Preview

In a stretch of 15 straight games against division opponents, the New York Yankees couldn’t have started that run any better.

After sweeping the top team in the AL East, the Yankees look to put some distance between themselves and their closest pursuers Friday night when they open a three-game set against the visiting Baltimore Orioles.

Since opening June with four straight losses, the Yankees (38-33) have won nine of 13 to move past Baltimore into second place in the East and within 1 1/2 games of Toronto.

They completed their first three-game home sweep of the season with Thursday’s 6-4 victory over the struggling Blue Jays. Jacoby Ellsbury stole two bases, scored twice and hit one of three early sacrifice flies as New York evened its home record at 16-16.

”Big series for us,” reliever Adam Warren said. ”It’s nice to kind of see our team click a little bit and play some good baseball.”

Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter – the top two hitters in the Yankees’ lineup – have keyed the team’s 7-2 surge. Gardner is batting .361 (13 for 36) with seven runs in that stretch while Jeter is 15 for 37 (.405) with seven runs.

Hiroki Kuroda (4-5, 4.32 ERA) will try to pitch New York to a season-best fifth straight home win.

He wasn’t sharp Saturday at Oakland, allowing four runs and five hits with three walks in 4 2-3 innings of a 5-1 loss. Kuroda was far more effective in his previous two starts, yielding three runs and seven hits over 13 2-3 innings but went 0-1 after receiving three runs of support.

The right-hander limited the Orioles to two runs over 6 1-3 innings in a 4-2 victory April 7, improving to 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA in five starts against them at Yankee Stadium.

He’ll face a Baltimore (37-34) team that has gone 6-4 during a 13-game stretch against division foes and is coming off a 2-0 win at Tampa Bay on Wednesday. Nelson Cruz hit his major league-leading 22nd homer and Steve Pearce stayed hot with an RBI double to help Baltimore win for the sixth time in eight road games.

With Matt Wieters out for the season because of elbow surgery and Chris Davis in a 5-for-40 slump, Pearce has provided a much-needed boost. The journeyman outfielder is batting .324 with five homers, nine doubles and 15 RBIs in 105 at-bats. He leads the team in on-base percentage (.377) and ranks second in slugging (.552) and OPS (.930)

”And I want to keep continuing it and doing what I can do to help the team win,” said Pearce, a former Yankee.

While Pearce has been a pleasant surprise, Ubaldo Jimenez (2-8, 4.86) has been a major disappointment and hasn’t to come close to fulfilling expectations after signing a four-year, $50 million contract. He is tied for the AL lead in losses and ranks second in the majors with 45 walks in 76 innings.

Jimenez is 0-4 with a 5.00 ERA in seven starts since beating Tampa Bay on May 8, but has allowed two runs or fewer in three of his past four outings.

Saturday’s start against Toronto was a small step forward despite a season high-tying five walks, as he allowed two runs and three hits over six innings in a 4-0 loss.

The right-hander was tagged for four runs and eight hits with five walks over 4 2-3 innings in a 4-2 loss in the Bronx on April 7. He’s 0-4 with an 8.10 ERA in his last four starts against New York.

Carlos Beltran is 5 for 13 with two homers off Jimenez.

The Orioles batted .354 and scored 21 runs while taking two of three at Yankee Stadium in early April.