Orioles-Yankees preview

NEW YORK — In three weeks, Gary Sanchez has helped the New York Yankees stay within striking distance in the race for the American League wild card.

Sanchez and the Yankees get an opportunity to inch closer to a team holding one of the wild-card spots when they open a three-game series with the Baltimore Orioles on Friday night at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees will face the Orioles in each of the next two weekends and begin 4 1/2 games out of the second wild-card spot.

When Sanchez was promoted from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre, the Yankees were 53-53 and 5 1/2 games behind the Boston Red Sox for the second wild-card spot. Their smallest deficit since Sanchez was called up was 3 1/2 games from Aug. 11-13.

Since his promotion, Sanchez has hit nine home runs and New York has won 12 of its last 20 games to get to 65-61. Sanchez's latest home run occurred during Wednesday's 5-0 win in Seattle, which capped a 4-2 West Coast trip.

Sanchez has become the Yankees regular catcher while moving veteran Brian McCann to being the regular designated hitter. After his latest home run, Sanchez is batting .389 with an OPS of 1,297.

“You feel like he's going to hit the ball hard is what you feel,” New York manager Joe Girardi said. “And you're not sure where it's going to end up but you feel like he's going to hit the ball real hard. He's been locked in and it's been fun to watch.”

Sanchez is one of five major leaguers since 1913 with nine or more home runs in his first 21 games. He also is one of nine with 15 or more extra bases in his first 21 games.

As much as fans enjoy hearing those things, none of those accolades matter to Sanchez.

“I understand it, but the focus is not about me, it's about winning games here,” Sanchez said through a translator. “That's where my focus is, go out there, play hard and win some games.”

The Yankees did some winning in their last encounter with the Orioles by taking the first three games by a 14-2 margin before Chris Tillman pitched seven outstanding innings in Baltimore's 4-1 win on July 21.

To demonstrate how much has changed since those games, 10 players who were on New York's active roster will not be with the team Friday due to injuries, demotions or trades.

Baltimore moved into first place with its second series win against the Yankees June 3-5 but when it left the Bronx it was a half-game out of first place. The Orioles (70-57) have spent 111 days in first place, have not held a share of the division lead since Aug. 15 and trail the Blue Jays and Red Sox by one game.

The Orioles dropped 2 1/2 games out when it gave up 32 runs in a three-game sweep by the Houston Astros last weekend. Baltimore recovered decently by scoring 22 times in taking three of four against the Washington Nationals.

Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop and Mark Trumbo homered in the series. The quartet has combined for 118 of Baltimore's major league-leading 197 home runs. Neither player connected Thursday as the Orioles struck out 10 times and mustered three hits in a 4-0 loss.

“Good series for us,” Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones said. “We took it to a good team and tonight they took it to us. I think overall it was a good series. We played well. Pitchers threw the ball extremely well. Now let's go to New York and do the same thing. Important series.”

Jones had one of those hits before leaving with a leg cramp but he said he expects to play Friday.

Jones and the Orioles will be healthier than their last visit to New York when a flu bug hit the team and forced Machado, Davis and Showalter to miss games.

While Sanchez is part of the Yankees' attempt to get younger bats in their lineup, Luis Cessa is making his second career start out of necessity. Cessa and Chad Green are in the Yankees' rotation because Nathan Eovaldi is having elbow surgery and Luis Severino is in the minors.

Cessa made an impressive debut in New York's rotation last Saturday when he allowed two hits in six shutout innings during a 5-1 win at the Los Angeles Angels.

For all its prowess at the plate, Baltimore has struggled on the mound at times by posting a 4.38 ERA. Those struggles include Yovani Gallardo, who starts Friday and has a 5.08 ERA.

Gallardo is 1-4 with a 4.66 ERA in his last 10 starts though he has pitched decently in four starts this month. Gallardo has allowed three earned runs or less in four straight starts, including Sunday against Houston when he allowed three earned runs and seven hits in seven innings.

Gallardo faced the Yankees July 20 in New York and allowed four runs and five hits in seven innings of a 5-0 loss.