Red-hot Yanks take on Rays

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The New York Yankees have the best record in baseball at 50-22, and they’ve rarely been better than against the Tampa Bay Rays this season.

The Yankees won their first five meetings with the Rays this season by a combined margin of 31-10 before losing Sunday, and they’re back again for a weekend series at Tropicana Field, having won seven of eight overall after a sweep of the Mariners.

New York has been dominant for many reasons, but a strong bullpen is certainly one of them, with a collective ERA of 2.86, second only to Houston among American League teams. Part of that has been solid starting pitching requiring less use of relievers. The Yankees’ relievers have thrown close to 70 innings fewer than the Rays have in grinding out a 3.73 ERA in a league-high workload.

“They’ve been terrific,” manager Aaron Boone said of New York’s relievers. “They protect each other, because many guys have stepped up. … It’s a big reason. We’re built in a lot of ways around that great bullpen. They continue to deliver.”

The Rays (34-40) have lost five of seven and have sorely missed that continuity in their starting rotation, continuing to rely on relievers working as “openers” on patchwork bullpen days. Such will be the case in Friday’s opener, with right-hander Ryne Stanek (1-1, 2.21 ERA) getting the ball first, but expected to go little more than the first inning.

Stanek has pitched exceptionally well in that role, however. In eight June appearances, he has an 0.00 ERA in 10 2/3 innings, having allowed only three hits with 12 strikeouts against three walks. Until their recent skid, the Rays had continued to hover around .500 baseball despite trading away major parts of last year’s team in exchange for prospects.

Stanek started last Saturday’s game against the Yankees, and allowed one hit and no runs in 1 1/3 innings in a game New York won 4-1. He has faced the Yankees five times in his career, inclding that one start, and is 0-0 with a 2.08 ERA over 4 1/3 innings.

The Rays got one key player back after missing two months with injury in center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, whose defense is among the league’s best. His bat has yet to come around this season, though. He is 0-for-9 in two games since returning from the disabled list, lowering his season average to .135.

“He’s fine. He’ll get going,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Unfortunately, KK got off to a rough start. Those numbers are going to be ugly for a little while, but I’m confident he’ll get going … I’m very confident.”

The Rays will face a familiar face Friday in Yankees starter C.C. Sabathia, who is 4-2 this season with a 3.30 ERA, with one of those two losses coming Sunday against the Rays in New York. Sabathia pitched into the eighth but gave up a season-high 10 hits, allowing three runs in a 3-1 loss while striking out a season-high 10 batters and walking only one.

Sabathia has faced the Rays 46 times in his career, and no opponent has more wins against him than the Rays — he’s 16-15 all-time, with a 3.76 ERA.

New York goes into the series with a considerable head of steam. They’re 17-4 in their last 21 games, putting them on pace to challenge the best starts by any team at this stage in the season.