AL East Opening Day: New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Two of the top teams in the American League begin their 2012 season against one another, as the Tampa Bay Rays host the New York Yankees for a 3-game series at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay Florida. With game time set at 3:10 PM ET featuring a fantastic duel between Yankees’ ace C.C. Sabathia and Tampa Bay’s James Shields, expectations should once again be high that today’s contest will be another tightly contested ballgame, as two elite pitchers keep hitters guessing and runs to a minimum.

Both New York and Tampa Bay will likely be entrenched in a season-long jockeying for postseason positioning, as once again from the beginning of the MLB season it appears as though the AL East will feature two postseason teams. Both of these elite squads however have the unfortunate situation of sharing a division together, meaning that they’ll likely be beating each other up over the 19 games they have scheduled against one another. As such, there is little question that both sides will want to start the 2012 season with a bang, and get the early leg up on their top competition today. Though each team goes about their business in a different way, with the Yankees spending uncontrollably over of the years in the pursuit of perfection and the Rays set on building top-caliber teams via their farm system, this match-up is confirmation that fielding a winning team can be done either by the checkbook, or by careful planning and management of a prosperous minor league network.

The pitching match-up for tonight’s game is perfect case in point for these two very different baseball philosophies. While the Yankees acquired the hard-throwing, dominant presence of C.C. Sabathia from the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008, Tampa’s James Shields is a product of careful grooming and patience, having been with the club since amateur draft day back in 2000. Though Sabathia is certainly on paper of another caliber heading into this match-up, starting 9 opening day games and having 3 19+ win seasons in a row, Shields’ talents look to finally be paying off for the Rays, especially after an outstanding 2011 season which saw him throw 11 complete games with 4 shutouts, while posting a 16-12 record and a 2.82 ERA. Match that against Sabathia’s 19-8 record with a 3.00 ERA and just 3 complete games including one shutout, and you can see where Tampa Bay’s investment may be finally paying off (especially considering Sabathia is paid 24 million a year, and Shields just over 4 million). Money and history aside, these two pitchers have also proven to be in top form when facing one another, with Sabathia holding a 2.51 ERA and a .224 opponent batting average in 4 starts during 2011, and Shields posting an even better 2.33 ERA and a .217 opponent batting average in 5 starts. Interestingly enough however, neither pitcher was able to have a winning record last year in this match-up, with Sabathia going 2-6 against Tampa Bay while with New York, and Shields going 4-5 during that same stretch. Though the pitcher who gets the win in tonight’s heated match-up may be very much in doubt, there’s little question that both these elite pitchers will be well prepared and poised for a low-scoring showdown today.

We certainly know the caliber of starting pitching for tonight’s game, but where the match-up starts to shake down lies with the bullpen, as well as the batting order for both squads, with a number of key differences that should give one side an edge over the other. The Yankees of course have one of the highest-paid and most productive batting line-ups in the MLB, with a laundry list of top players from Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira in the infield positions, to Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and the newly-acquired Raul Ibanez in the outfield. However, this line-up last year (sans Ibanez of course), was flustered by Shields, who consistently pitched well against the Yankees’ top batsmen, most notably continuing to baffle the Yanks’ top home run threat Curtis Granderson (a career 3-for-43 hitter against Shields, by far his lowest mark against any pitcher). While the Yankees have depth with their bats, they’ll have to find a way to crack at Shields early on, in order to avoid him getting into a similar groove he found frequently last season against New York. All told, Yankees hitters collectively have just a .228 lifetime average against Shields, with only Robinson Cano (.386, 4 homers, 11 RBI in 57 at-bats) and Derek Jeter (.311 in 67 at-bats) having real success against him. Newcomer Raul Ibanez is 0-for-11 lifetime as well, so if there’s to be any improvement for the Yankees, its’ going to have to come from step-up, clutch hitting, rather than from a new addition with previous experience and success against Shields.

Up against C.C. Sabathia tonight, Tampa Bay doesn’t fare much better. While Evan Longoria has been the bright spot (.333, 4 homers, 7 RBI in 30 at-bats), he’s the only Rays player with over 15 at-bats against Sabathia to hold a .300 or better average. Their second best hitter against Sabathia, B.J. Upton (.289 lifetime avg.), starts the season on the disabled list, leaving very little in the way of power hitting for Tampa Bay tonight. Ben Zobrist, the only other Rays player aside from Upton and Longoria to surpass the 20-home run mark last season, will certainly have to step up tonight to provide some power to the heart of the Rays order. Also for Tampa Bay, a big concern tonight lies with their bullpen, as relief pitcher Kyle Farnsworth (25 saves, 2.18 ERA in 63 appearances) is on the DL to start the season as well. The Rays will have to lean on Joel Peralta, last season’s key set-up man, who was solid against the Yankees last season (6 games, 7 innings, 3 hits, 1 run allowed), but is much less familiar in a pure closer role. Mariano Rivera, the Yankees closer, will likely not be one to be making mistakes tonight, as he’s posted a 2.84 ERA with 10 saves while holding Tampa hitters to just a .182 average over the past 3 years of play. Though New York is slimmer in the middle ranks of the bullpen than Tampa Bay is, the battle between closers today will certainly be something to watch for heading into the next two games of this series over the weekend.

Betting Lines for the New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Rays at Bookmaker Sportsbook

The lines are tight for the opening game of the season between the two AL powerhouses, but for this match-up tonight the visiting Yankees hold a slight advantage on the money line, with -139 odds to win straight up, while Tampa Bay comes in as +119 underdogs.

Against the spread, New York will have to cover 1 1/2 runs at +120 odds, with Tampa Bay getting a 1 1/2 run cushion at -140 odds.

The over/under on today’s clash sits at a low 7 runs, which takes into consideration the level of talent on the mound for both clubs. As we’ve witnessed after yesterday’s games (whereby just 5 of 7 games went over the total runs mark), elite starting pitching has been dominant to start the season, leading to higher probabilities of total runs going under in the opening day games around the league. Expect this match-up to be little different, as both pitching staffs will be on their best with each team set on securing an opening day win against their most heated competition in the AL East.

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