The Tampa Bay Rays return home for an important nine-game homestand, starting Monday. (Photo Credit: X-Rays Spex)

After winning three of four against Cleveland, and five of the last seven, the Tampa Bay Rays return to the friendly confines of the Trop, where they will start a three-game set against the New York Yankees on Tuesday. The Yankees dropped three of four against the Red Sox in the previous series.

At 60-40 on the season, the Rays enter play 20-games over .500 and are 1.5 games back in the division behind Boston. They’ve won seven of the last 10 contests. Meanwhile, the Yankees come in at 51-47 — 9.5 games back in the division, 3.5 games back of the Athletics for the final Wildcard spot, and winners of six of the last 10 games.

Tampa Bay’s offense continued to shine over the weekend, plating 25 runs against Cleveland, while a quarter of those runs came with two outs. The Yankees didn’t fare nearly as well when the Rays needed them the most, dropping a walk-off loss to Boston on Thursday, then blowing a late 4-0 no-hit bid on Sunday, and subsequently losing 5-4. Credit where it’s due, they did hit .286 wRISP, yet they also allowed five two-out runs.

Tampa Bay ranks sixth in baseball averaging 4.94 runs per game. The bats are hot; they have scored at least five runs in four of the last five games and are as dangerous as ever with Nelson Cruz in the lineup.

Austin Meadows has feasted on New York this season, collecting 13 RBI along with a beefy 1.080 OPS. Meadows is in the midst of a great season, mashing 18 homers with 71 RBI and an overall .797 OPS. He’s driven in eight runs in the last five games. Meanwhile, Randy Arozarena continues his toasty ways in the second half, hitting .286 BA/.306 OBP/.600 SLG/.906 OPS with a .314 ISO, three homers, eight runs, and five runs batted in.

The Yankees are expected to get Aaron Judge, Kyle Higoshioka, and Gio Urshela back from the COVID-related Injured List. Urshela has been a thorn in the Rays side, sporting a .298 average along with five RBI in season head-to-heads. Overall, the third baseman has clubbed 11 homers along with 39 RBI and a .757 OPS. Luke Voit remains on the IL.

As strange as it may sound, the Yankees are averaging fewer runs than the Rays — 4.16 runs per game — and rank 23rd in all of baseball. And while New York’s pitching staff has tallied a 3.74 team ERA and a combined 3.81 FIP, landing them 11th overall, the bullpen has been abysmal over the last month, performing to a combined 5.94 ERA and a 4.33 FIP. Dare I say their woes began around the time MLB began enforcing illegal substance checks? Hmmm … that’s interesting timing.

The Rays are 30-18 at home this season and have won 23 of the last 29 games at Tropicana Field. They also are 8-5 against the Yankees in ’21, with a +27 run differential … although their last home series loss came against the Yankees in mid-May.

Pitching Probables

Kevin Cash will turn to Shane McClanahan (4-3, 3.88 ERA), Michael Wacha (2-2, 5.16 ERA), and Luis Patiño (1-2, 5.26 ERA) over the next three days. Aaron Boone will counter with Jordan Montgomery (3-5, 3.96 ERA), Nestor Cortes (0-0, 1.95 ERA) likely as an opener, and Gerrit Cole (10-5, 2.74 ERA).

Shane McClanahan got the start Tuesday against the Orioles and allowed one run on four hits and a walk over five innings. He struck out seven. The rookie was sharp, tossing 65 of 93 pitches for strikes (70% strike rate). A second-inning double by Anthony Santander provided the only loud contact off McClanahan on the night, while a third-inning double play erased a Ji-Man Choi gaffe. While he didn’t complete six innings, he was forced to get four outs on more than one occasion because the defense committed two errors behind the left-hander and four overall — the most for the Rays in a game in more than two seasons, and the most at home in more than four. McClanahan hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in an outing since June 2 and carries a 3.88 ERA and a 3.64 FIP, with a 1.25 WHIP and 3.55 K/BB through 65 innings on the season. He was tagged for four runs on five hits and two walks across 3.1 innings in his last start against the Yankees.

Jordan Montgomery allowed three hits and one walk while striking out six across 5.2 scoreless innings Thursday against Boston. Montgomery retired the first six batters he faced before running into trouble in the third. He, however, escaped without allowing any earned runs and ended the outing with his first scoreless effort since May 21 — a stretch of nine starts. Montgomery now owns a 3.96 ERA and a 3.58 FIP with a 3.39 K/BB across 104.2 innings. He is 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA in four starts against the Rays this season and 1-0 with a 4.09 ERA in two starts at the Trop. Key Matchups: Austin Meadows (3-11, BB), Francisco Mejía (2-5, HR, RBI), Mike Zunino (2-4, 2 HR, 3 RBI)

Michael Wacha allowed three runs on six hits and struck out two in five innings on Wednesday against the Orioles. The righty was very efficient, not issuing any walks and requiring just 58 pitches to complete the five frames. A pair of solo homers slightly diminished what was otherwise a solid turn for Wacha, who now has a 5.16 ERA and a 5.08 FIP, with a 1.34 WHIP and a 3.17 K/BB across 66.1 innings this season. Inconsistency has been the story of his season. He is 1-0 with a 3.09 ERA in three outings (one start) against the Yankees this season.

Nestor Cortes allowed three runs on three hits across two innings Friday versus Boston. He struck out three batters and did not issue a walk. The mustachioed left-hander was activated from the COVID-19 IL earlier in the day and got into the division clash with Red Sox, staked to a two-run lead in the sixth inning. Cortes got through his first frame unscathed, yet Rafael Devers tagged him for a three-run homer in the seventh that broke the game open for Boston. The blast accounted for as many earned runs against Cortes (three) as he had allowed through 25.2 innings prior to Friday. He still carries an impressive 1.95 ERA on the season, with a 2.25 FIP, 1.01 WHIP, and a 3.40 K/BB. Key Matchups: Ji-Man Choi (1-3), Nelson Cruz (1-1, HR, RBI, BB), Yandy Díaz (2-5, 2B, HR, 3 RBI), Kevin Kiermaier (1-4, 2 RBI, BB), Brandon Lowe (1-2, HR, 3 RBI)

Luis Patiño got the start for Tampa Bay on Thursday and allowed four runs on five hits and three walks with four strikeouts across 5.1 innings versus the Guardians. He threw 66 of 98 pitches for strikes (67% strike rate). Patiño was alright, with the majority of Cleveland’s damage coming on a three-run homer in the third inning. Yet, Rays’ pitchers, including the right-hander, were able to hold the Guardians to 1-for-13 wRISP. Patiño’s ERA rose to 5.26, while his FIP currently sits at 4.18, with a 1.25 WHIP and 3.5 K/BB across 25.2 innings this season. He is 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA in one, four-inning start against the Yankees this season.

Gerrit Cole allowed three runs on six hits and two walks while fanning eight across five innings against Boston on Friday. Cole surrendered a two-run shot to Rafael Devers and gave up his three runs during the bottom of the fifth. The hurler was coming off back-to-back quality starts and had allowed just one earned run over his last 15 innings, yet he was unable to repeat that kind of performance in this one and failed to pitch more than five frames for the third time over his last five turns. Cole’s ERA rose to 2.74, while his FIP currently sits at 2.81, with a 0.97 WHIP and 6.38 K/BB across 125.0 innings on the season. He is 1-2 with a 3.26 ERA in three starts against the Rays this season. Key Matchups: Ji-Man Choi (8-12, 3 2B, 3 HR, 8 RBI, 3 BB), Yandy Díaz (8-21, HR, 4 RBI), Brandon Lowe (4-14, RBI, BB), Brett Phillips (1-4)

Noteworthiness

— Rays optioned RHP Sean Poppen back to the Durham Bulls ahead of the expected activation of Manuel Margot from the 10-Day IL. That will give the team 13 pitchers and position players.

— Nick Anderson made his second rehab appearance in the Florida Complex League on Monday and struck out two in a perfect inning of work.

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