(Sports Network) - At the very least, the New York Yankees have assured themselves that they will be in first place at the end of this four-game series with the Tampa Rays.
In taking the first two contests of this set between American League East rivals, New York has opened up a 2 1/2-game lead over Tampa Bay in the standings and will try to stretch that edge another game this evening at Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees have plated eight runs over the first two games of the series to give themselves a victory in four of their last five contests. Though their offensive production only equaled a two-run victory on Monday, the Yanks rolled to an 8-3 triumph last night behind a five-run bottom of the first and 6 1/3 decent innings out of Phil Hughes.
Nick Swisher homered in the first inning for New York and Lance Berkman added a two-run double in the frame. Robinson Cano later had a two-run double of his own and Hughes won his 17th game of the season after allowing three runs on four hits and five walks.
"You have a lead to work with, it makes things a lot easier," Hughes said. "Those couple runs [Tampa Bay scored] didn't really give them much momentum because they still had a little bit of a hill to climb."
With 11 games left to play, New York's magic number to clinch a playoff spot is three. Wild Card-leading Tampa Bay, which is 6 1/2 games up for the AL's final postseason position, has a magic number of six to get into the playoffs despite losses in three straight and four of its last five.
Matt Joyce had two hits, one a homer, for the Rays last night, but James Shields was tagged for five runs over 5 1/3 innings.
"You let up five runs in the first inning, that's definitely not doing my job," Shields said. "I didn't do my job in the first inning. I guess if you're going to take a positive out of it, I came back pretty strong...but with this team, you can't do that in the first inning."
New York and Tampa Bay have now split eight games so far this year, and Thursday's finale marks the final regular-season meeting between the clubs in 2010.
Having seized the momentum in the race for the AL East crown, the Yankees will now try to derail Rays starter Wade Davis, who hasn't lost since June 27. Davis has won seven straight decisions over 11 starts since, allowing two earned runs or less in eight of those games.
The 25-year-old got a no-decision last time out Friday versus the Angels, giving up three runs -- two earned -- on seven hits with eight strikeouts over six innings. Overall he is 12-9 with a 4.19 earned run average in 26 starts this year.
Davis beat the Yankees on July 30 as part of his current undefeated run, with the right-hander giving up two runs over seven innings. Davis is 2-2 with a 4.18 ERA lifetime versus New York.
Yankees starter A.J. Burnett does not have fond memories of the last time he faced the Rays, as he lasted just two-plus innings and was charged with four runs in a July 17 loss. The 33-year-old also suffered cuts to both of his palms in between the second and third frames after slamming them into a set of double doors in frustration.
Burnett, who is 12-6 with a 3.16 ERA lifetime against Tampa Bay, has lost five of his last six overall decisions, but has not factored into the outcome of his last two outings. That includes a start in Baltimore on Friday, when he gave up three runs on six hits over seven innings of a 4-3 Yankees' win.
The righty is 10-13 on the season with a 5.08 ERA in 30 starts.