The Yankees dropped two of three to the Devil Rays at the beginning of the month, but the Rays had won six of seven coming into that series and went on to win five of their next seven after leaving the Bronx. In other words, the Rays were hot. Entering this penultimate series of the season, the Rays have won just three of their last twelve. They're also playing without Carl Crawford, who hasn't played in two weeks due to some muscle strains in his legs, and James Sheilds, who would have started tomorrow, but won't because he's reached his innings limit for the season (he's thrown 215 innings this year after throwing 185 2/3 innings between triple-A and the majors as a rookie last year). Both are breaks for the Yanks as Shields had emerged as a strong number two in the Tampa rotation and, in an otherwise disappointing season, Crawford has hit .380/.436/.500 against the Yankees this year.
The Rays are also without second baseman Brendan Harris (shoulder), which is news less because of his absence than because of the player who has replaced him, 32-year-old minor league lifer Jorge Velandia, who is with his fifth organization in as many years. Velandia is a career .247/.304/.356 hitter in the minors and last sniffed the majors with the Mets in 2003, but he returned with a rage last week and went 10 for 18 with four doubles and four walks over his first six games as the Rays' starting second baseman. He's 1 for 8 with four Ks over his last two games, however, so perhaps the Yankees be fortunate enough to see the real Jorge Velandia at the plate over the next three days.
They better hope so, as Kei Igawa is starting tonight in place of Roger Clemens, who has been scratched once again due to his tweaky left hamstring. Clemens will not appear in this series, but the Yankees are still expecting him to pitch against Baltimore and answer the bell for the postseason. Much like they are with Ian Kennedy, the Yankees are being overly cautious with Clemens now in the hope of getting more out of him in October. Here's hoping it works out that way, at least in Clemens' case (with Kennedy ticketed for the long relief role, something will have to go wrong for him to see much if any postseason action).
Igawa made seven starts since his last demotion to triple-A Columbus, posting the following line:
Four of those seven starts were quality starts, including his final three. Igawa's only faced one batter since August 31. That came on Saturday and the batter, Toronto's Hector Luna, hit an RBI single.
Opposing Igawa will be Jason Hammel. Hammel was supposed emerge in the rotation along with Shields, but stumbled badly in his last four starts last year, starting with a stinker against the Yanks at the Stadium. He then failed to make the Rays out of camp, arrive in mid-June to post a 6.11 ERA out of the bullpen, then increased that to 7.44 over his first eight starts (the first of which saw him allow two runs in four innings in the Bronx). However, Hammel has posted a 2.35 ERA over his last four starts, allowing just one home run and striking out 17 against just four walks in 23 innings. That streak also started in the Bronx--Hammel threw five innings of one-run ball striking out seven and walking none the last time these two teams met--and has continued with games against the Blue Jays, Mariners, and Angels.
Hammel will face the same lineup the Yanks ran out there yesterday, though Damon will play in the field and Matsui will DH.
Incidentally, the Devil Rays will shorten their name to the Tampa Bay Rays next year and adopt new uniforms with blue as their primary color (something their official site has unsubtly hinted at all year with it's all-blue color scheme). The uni designs have slipped out here. Personally, I'm annoyed that they're ditching the unique and appropriate green to become the 17th major league team with some shade of blue as its primary color. I'm also very disappointed in the generic design and the name change. The Rays uniforms won't be ugly, but they will be perhaps the least interesting in all of baseball, which is saying really something.
Meanwhile, the same site has images of the sleeve patches the Yankees will be wearing next year in honor of the All-Star Game and the (#&*@*&$) final season of Yankee Stadium, as well as some other new alternate uniforms and sleeve patches that we'll see around the majors in 2008 here.