(Sports Network) - First place in the American League East will be up for grabs this evening when the New York Yankees visit the Tampa Bay Rays for the first of three important matchups at Tropicana Field.
While both teams appear headed to the playoffs anyway, the division title is still up for grabs, as New York enters tonight's tilt a half-game up on the Rays following a disappointing weekend in Texas.
New York lost two games in the division to the Rays over the weekend as it was swept in a three-game set by the Rangers, while Tampa took two of three from the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Rays missed an opportunity to take over sole possession of first place in the division on Sunday when it was denied the sweep in Toronto, as usually- reliable closer Rafael Soriano served up a game-winning home run, sending the Rays to a 5-4 loss.
"[Soriano] has been absolutely brilliant for us all year, and they got to him today," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of his closer, who had converted his previous 19 save chances.
The division could be settled over the next 11 days with the teams squaring off seven times in that span starting this evening. Either way, the Rays still lead the wild card by 7 1/2 games.
As if there was not enough intrigue for this series, tonight's contest features two of the best left-handers in baseball, as New York's CC Sabathia takes another shot at his 20th win against David Price in a battle of American League Cy Young contenders.
Sabathia, who has never won 20 games in a season, was denied the milestone victory on Tuesday against Baltimore, which ripped him for six runs (five earned) and nine hits in 6 1/3 innings, as he lost for the first time at Yankee Stadium this season and for the first time in 17 decisions dating back to last season. He is 19-6 on the year with a 3.14 earned run average.
"They were just aggressive, swinging early and it took my aggressiveness away," said Sabathia. "We tried to mix it up early in the count but I wasn't able to get my secondary pitches over for strikes. They got some balls to hit and didn't miss them."
The 30-year-old hurler had a shot to win his 20th game last season against Tampa, but the Rays touched him up for nine runs (five earned) in just 2 2/3 innings.
Sabathia lost to the Rays the last time he faced them and is 8-4 against them with a 3.08 ERA in 18 starts. However, since joining the Yankees, he's 1-3 with a 4.23 ERA over seven starts in this series.
"Every game for us right now is big," Sabathia said. "That's what makes the division so tough, getting the chance to play the team that's there. It's always going to be big.
Price, meanwhile, has been terrific since getting ripped for seven runs in five innings by the Yankees back on July 18. He has gone 5-1 in nine starts since and is an impressive 17-6 on the year to go along with a 2.87 ERA.
"He shoulders a lot of responsibility already," Maddon said. "A driven athlete with a high skill level, that's a nice combination."
Price, who is 2-1 lifetime against the Yankees, was superb in beating the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday, as he held them to one earned run in six innings.
The 25-year-old Price will be facing a Yankee club that has not lost four in a row since a five-game skid in May of last season. The Yankees squandered a late lead in the opener to the Rangers, then watched Mariano Rivera blow a save on Saturday, before they managed just two hits in Sunday's finale off of Cliff Lee in a 4-1 loss.
"We lost three tough games," said Yankees skipper Joe Girardi. "We were in pretty good position to win a couple and we didn't ... We have to find a way to bounce back."
Tampa has won six of its 11 meetings with the Yankees this season, but the two have split the six matchups at Tropicana Field.