Yankees @ Devil Rays Series Preview

The best and worst teams in the American League open a three-game series Friday night as the New York Yankees travel to Florida to battle Tampa Bay. After a high-scoring two-game split in Cleveland, the Yankees stand at 63-37, four games ahead of Boston, which gained a split of its four-game home series with the Devil Rays. Last year, en route to their World Series loss, the Yankees were 59-41 after 100 games.

The Devil Rays, on the opposite end of the spectrum, are a major-league worst 32-68 after their first 100 games, its split with Boston ending a seven-game losing streak.

Tampa Bay perennially serves as a punching bag for the Yankees, and 2002 is no exception – New York enters this series having won eight of the nine meetings between the teams, outscoring the Devil Rays 59-20, with half of Tampa's runs coming in their only win over the Yankees.

Like most young teams, the Devil Rays have struggled with consistency, with five losing streaks of at least five games. After starting 9-10, a 15-game slide dropped Tampa to its customary spot in the AL East cellar.

But there is some hope. CF Randy Winn made the All-Star team and is hitting .316 with 46 RBIs from his leadoff spot. And OF Carl Crawford joined the team a week ago and has shown why most baseball experts consider him one of the majors' can't-miss prospects.

The pitching staff, on the other hand, has shown few bright spots, a danger against the potent Yankees offense. Tampa's pitchers have allowed 128 homers in 99 games and sport a major-league worst 5.17 team ERA.

The Yankees come in swinging the bats well, and playing clutch baseball. Wednesday's 14-7 win was the team's first in its last six wins that didn't come in New York's final at-bat. The late wins have bailed out an injury- and suspension-thinned pitching staff, particularly among the starters.

Roger Clemens (right groin) and Orlando Hernandez (suspension) are missing, but Hernandez returns to start Sunday, while Clemens is expected to pitch in the minors Saturday. And David Wells is nursing a sore back but continues to pitch.

Of more concern to the Yankees is the right shoulder of closer Mariano Rivera. Out since leaving last Saturday's game after six pitches, Rivera threw Wednesday but reported some discomfort. There's the strong possibility the All-Star will have to go on the disabled list after receiving a cortisone shot in the shoulder Thursday.

But in his absense, relievers Steve Karsay and Mike Stanton have picked up the slack. Each has picked up a win for the Yankees since Rivera's injury, but neither has been called on yet in a save situation.

PITCHING MATCHUPS


The Yankees will face three Tampa starters with a combined 4-19 record this weekend, starting Friday with Mike Mussina (12-4) facing rookie Jorge Sosa (1-2). Mussina comes off a tough 4-2 loss to Boston last Friday in which he allowed three runs, two earned, in eight innings while giving up just five hits. The loss ended a string where the righty won nine of 10 decisions.

Sosa, also a righty, was a winner in his last start, last Sunday against Toronto. After starting the season as a reliever, Sosa joined the rotation for good in late June with an injury to Ryan Rupe. In his last three outings, Sosa has given up seven runs and 14 hits in 19 innings and seen his ERA drop from 6.84 to 5.36.

Two struggling starters square off Saturday evening as the Yankees' Jeff Weaver (7-8) looks to make his first strong start since joining the team. He'll take on Tampa's Tanyon Sturtze, who is 1-10. Weaver has seen his ERA soar from 3.18 to 3.88 since the trade from Detroit, giving up 18 runs in 20 innings. And in two starts against the Devil Rays while with Detroit, he was 0-1 with a 6.10 ERA, allowing nine runs, seven earned, in 10 1/3 innings.

Sturtze, Tampa's opening day starter, lost his first eight decisions before finally beating Toronto on June 26. Before being bombed by Boston in his last start, Sturtze had strung together five straight strong efforts, giving up just 12 runs in 40 innings, a 2.70 ERA.

Orlando Hernandez (5-3) returns from his five-game suspension to pitch Sunday, opposed by ex-Met Paul Wilson (2-7). Since coming off the DL in late June, Hernandez is 1-1 with a save in four appearances, giving up nine runs in 23 1/3 innings.

Wilson, the subject of trade rumors despite his record, has the lowest ERA among Tampa starters at 4.20. In his only start against the Yankees, Wilson lost 5-2, giving up five runs in 8 2/3 innings.


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