The Tampa Bay Rays begin an important week of play in the American League East when they host the New York Yankees in a three-game series starting Tuesday in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Close behind the Boston Red Sox in the division standings, the second-place Rays will look to keep pounding the longball, which has become a major reason for their recent success - posting a 7-3 record since the All-Star break.
In a forceful display of power, Tampa Bay - which has taken eight of 13 from the Yankees this season -- has homered in six straight games and eight of 10 since the break, totaling 15 overall.
Those numbers should continue to soar like a majestic drive over the wall with the addition of seven-time All-Star Nelson Cruz, who was acquired Thursday from the Minnesota Twins and immediately made an impact.
The right-handed Cruz, 41, homered in his first game Friday and added another in Sunday's 3-2 loss in Cleveland to give him 438 for his career.
"He looks really good in a Rays uniform," Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. "He's looked good in all the uniforms he's worn, but I'm biased to the one he's got on right now. This group was really hyped when he walked into the building. He has a presence about him.
"Nelson and I were in camp together years ago when he was with the Rangers. His impact will be heard loud and clear."
Tuesday rookie starter Shane McClanahan (4-3, 3.88 ERA) was roughed up in his lone career start against the Yankees on June 2, surrendering five hits and four runs in 3 1/3 innings to take the loss.
Last week, the Yankees' play started off fine with a pair of home wins over the Philadelphia Phillies before a disappointing series in Boston against the arch-rival Red Sox - losing three of four in Fenway Park.
They lost 5-4 in 10 innings on Thursday by blowing a late two-run lead. On Sunday, matters got even worse when they wasted seven no-hit innings by Domingo German and watched the Red Sox rally for five runs in the eighth in a 5-4 victory.
The defeat deprived New York of a series split and damaged them even more in the standings. They also slipped to four games over .500 - just one-half game ahead of the fourth-place Toronto Blue Jays.
After the disappointing loss Sunday, Fangraphs gridded the Yankees' playoffs chances at 33.2 percent.
"Look, it's been a difficult season to this point. No question about it," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "But to these guys' credit, they continue to get off the mat time and time again and will do it again."
All-Star outfielder Aaron Judge and catcher Kyle Higashioka, out since July 16 on the COVID-19 injured list, practiced Monday at Steinbrenner Field.
Judge worked on his defense in right field, and both took batting practice at the spring training complex in Tampa.
The two are expected to return during the Rays series.
Tampa Bay had five straight losing seasons against the Bronx Bombers, but is 21-9 over the teams' past 30 meetings, including a 3-2 series win in the American League Division Series last October en route to the 2020 World Series.
Making his 20th start this season, Jordan Montgomery (3-5, 3.96) will face the Rays for the fifth time in 2021, holding a 2-1 record and a 3.86 ERA over four starts.
In 10 career starts against them, Montgomery is 3-3 with a 4.47 ERA. Rays hitters have batted .241 against the 28-year-old left-hander.
The rivals will close the regular season with three games in the Bronx from Oct. 1-3.
--Field Level Media