Rays At Yankees: After Steinbrenner Ceremony, A Battle For Top Spot In AL East

(Sports Network) - Though it appears as if both the Yankees and Rays are headed to the postseason, who will go as American League East champion -- and potentially have home-field advantage in the postseason -- has yet to be decided.

One of those teams can seize control of things this week as New York and Tampa Bay kick off a four-game series this evening at Yankee Stadium, where the defending World Series champions Yanks will honor the late George Steinbrenner prior to the ballgame.

Neither the first-place Yankees nor the wild-card leading Rays enter this series playing great baseball. New York heads back to the Bronx off a 3-6 road trip that featured five one-run losses and three setbacks in extra innings.

Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has alternated wins and losses over its last eight games, but did take two of three at home over New York to begin last week. That helped the Rays remain a half-game back of the Yankees for the division's top spot as well as 6 1/2 games up for the AL Wild Card spot with 14 games to play.

"We want home-field advantage for all the reasons," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon told MLB.com. "If you get there and end up playing Minnesota, their home record is [outstanding]. And you don't want to have to play an extra game up there; you'd rather play it down here. Yankee Stadium is the same way. Texas. Whatever way it shakes out, you'd rather play that extra game here."

The Rays were hindered by the long ball on Sunday, yielding three homers in a setback to the Angels. Jeff Niemann gave up two of those home runs as well as five runs in all over a 4 1/3-inning start to take the loss.

Still, Tampa Bay knows it is in position to battle for its second division crown in three seasons.

"We gotta take whatever positives we can into this series," said Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. "We always talk about big series throughout the course of the year and this is the biggest for us."

The Yankees don't have many positives to take out of Sunday's 4-3 loss to the Orioles that denied them a sweep of the three-game series. Closer Mariano Rivera served up a game-tying homer in the ninth inning to Luke Scott and Lance Berkman hit into an inning-ending double play in the 11th inning before Baltimore won it on an RBI single by Ty Wigginton in the bottom of the frame.

New York did get Andy Pettitte back into the rotation as he returned from a groin injury that had sidelined him since July 18. He threw six innings and limited the O's to a run on three hits and a walk.

A playoff veteran, Pettitte isn't as concerned with home-field advantage as the Rays.

"We feel quite sure we can win, whether we're at home or away -- I don't think that's too much of a concern," he told MLB.com. "We've been through it. Whatever it takes, we're going to get it done. I'm not trying to be cocky or arrogant about it, but that's the approach you've got to have."

One concern for the Yankees might be their ability to beat the Rays. Tampa Bay has won three of the last four meetings and eight of the 14 games played between the clubs so far. That includes three of five at Yankee Stadium.

The Rays took two of three at home last week over the Yankees and the two pitchers who started New York's lone win take center stage again today in Tampa Bay's Matt Garza and New York's Ivan Nova.

Neither pitcher got a decision as both hurlers lasted just 4 2/3 innings and were charged with six runs. Garza gave up homers to Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez, while Nova failed to hold a 6-0 lead in the worst start of his young career.

The 26-year-old Garza was 3-0 with a 0.99 earned run average in four starts from Aug. 17-Sept 3, but has allowed 12 runs over his last two starts. The right-hander is 14-8 with a 3.88 ERA on the season and just 1-3 with a 4.11 ERA lifetime versus the Yankees.

Nova, meanwhile, had allowed just eight runs over his first six career appearances prior to facing the Rays, including four starts. The 23-year-old righty is 1-0 with a 4.30 ERA on the season.

Already expected to be an exciting series, this four-game set will start off with a bit of emotion with the Yankees set to unveil a monument of the late Steinbrenner in Monument Park , located just beyond the center-field wall.

New York posted a .566 winning percentage under Steinbrenner, who passed away on July 13, winning seven World Championships and 11 AL pennants.

Due to an off day by the Dodgers, Joe Torre and Don Mattingly will both be in attendance for the event. It marks the duo's first return to Yankee Stadium since the conclusion of the 2007 season, when Torre left the Yankees to take over the Dodgers.

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