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How Could the Rays' Schedule Help Them Catch the Yankees?

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The Tampa Bay Rays have been playing good baseball for an extended number of weeks now. They're 11-7 in August and 7-3 in their last 10 games, coming off back-to-back series wins against their rival New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals, the latter of which was a 4-game set. This encouraging stretch has them entering the last full week of the month in second place in the AL East (via tiebreaker) at 65-55, 8 games behind the first-place Yankees.

Over their past 10 games, they have gained 4 games in the AL East standings, and a division that looked like it was completely out of reach just a few weeks ago could suddenly be up for grabs if New York continues to slide. The Rays' schedule for the remainder of the season is intriguing, and they could easily take advantage of it to embark on a surprise takeover of the division. The Yankees still have a 98.4% chance of winning the division to Tampa Bay's 0.6% according to Baseball Reference, so it's still unlikely but it's more possible than it has been at any point of the season.

The Rays started a stretch of 13 straight games against teams under .500 last week against the Royals, and after winning 3 of the first 4, they'll continue against the Angels, Red Sox, and Marlins to close out August. Later this week, the Yankees will begin a similar run of 7 such games against the A's and Angels, but before that, they'll face the Mets for 2 games and have to hit against Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom respectively. If the Rays can jump ahead against the Angels and the Mets ride their starting pitching to victory, they'll close the gap to 6 games by mid-week.

Once the Rays and Yankees end their respective stretches against weak competition, they'll face each other twice on back-to-back weekends to begin September: one three-game set at Tropicana Field, and then another in the Bronx. The second of those two series, from September 9 to 11, is the final time that they will face each other in the regular season. Despite their recent success against them, Tampa Bay is still just 5-8 against the Yankees this season. Catching them will almost certainly require going at least 4-2 in their remaining 6 games; in other words, a series win both times.

In the final few weeks of the regular season, the Rays have the more difficult schedule of the two teams. They play their entire season series with the Astros in late September and early October, and they'll also have a couple of sets with Toronto, as well as one key matchup with the Guardians on the road. The way the standings are shaking out in the AL Central, that series could end up deciding whether or not Cleveland makes the playoffs, so the Rays will probably have a motivated opponent on their hands.

In comparison, the Yankees' toughest opponent by win record after their final series with Tampa Bay is the Milwaukee Brewers. They'll face the Red Sox twice more, the Orioles once more, and they've already completed their season series with the Blue Jays. This likely means that if they want to make a run at the division, the Rays will have a better opportunity to make up ground in the next 3 weeks as opposed to the end of the season.

With all this in mind, and even despite the Yankees' enormous 13-25 freefall since early July, the odds of the Rays winning the division are still quite slim. To do it, they'll have to play at least .700 baseball the rest of the way as they have their past 10 games, regardless of whether the Yankees can stop their internal bleeding or not.

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Considering their remaining schedules, I believe that A) if the Rays can go at least 4-2 in their remaining contests against New York, B) if the Yankees are an average team at best for the rest of the season, and C) if, by the time their season series is done, the Rays are no more than 3 games back of the Yankees for first place, then the AL East will urgently be up for grabs. A lot of things have to go their way, but if the Rays can pull this off, it will be one of the most memorable late-season comebacks in MLB history.

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