The Yankees and Rays have come upon one of those revealing moments in a season that, if it falls short of deciding a pennant, figures to address the issue of who's who and what's what in the AL East. Even Tampa Bay's sleepy baseball community has figured out this is a can't-miss series: while only 17,000 were on hand for Matt Garza's no-hitter against the Tigers on Monday, the Trop is sold out for all three games against the great monolith from the north.
The Yankees and Rays have by far the major leagues' best run-differentials and the fact that both teams are hot makes this matchup even more compelling. Although the Rays won't replace the Red Sox as the Yankees' blood rival -- there's too much history in that hundred-year war -- Tampa Bay represents the greater threat, especially if Adam Dunn is on the way.
Even if he isn't, both sides will be taking notes in the next three days. Here are a few talking points:
What's with A-Rod?
He went 0-for-Cleveland in the hunt for career home run No. 600, a drought that's now reached 30 at-bats. Rodriguez is understandably embarrassed, but he'll reach the milestone soon enough.
At that point, the Yankees have to assume the third baseman will find the peace and serenity to finish strong, then tear up the postseason as he did in 2009. Those six home runs and 18 RBIs went a long way to exorcising Rodriguez's October demons, not to mention restoring his street cred with Yankee fans.
That's why his current home-run slump is so perplexing. Rodriguez should've been over these jitters by now, especially since he was freed from the burden of trying to please a hometown crowd. The Yankees were not only on the road, they spent the last nights taking glorified batting practice against the Tribe.
Instead, A-Rod has been a billboard of anxiety, taking exaggerated deep breaths in the batter's box, where his swing has been stiff and mechanical. Rodriguez doesn't need a hitting instructor, he needs Dr. Phil.
Babe Ruth, by comparison, went from HR No. 599 to 600 in just one at-bat. Talk about hardcore.
Who is the real Phil Hughes?
The right-hander, who starts tonight at the Trop, has obviously surpassed Joba Chamberlain as the Yankees' most promising young pitching talent. The Bombers love Hughes' stuff, and more importantly, they trust him. But this is nevertheless a critical appearance for Hughes, who has not faced the Rays this year. Although he pitched reasonably well against the Royals in his last start, allowing three runs in 5.1 innings, Hughes has a 5.43 ERA since June 1, and has allowed seven home runs in this last 23 innings.
What does Garza do for an encore?
He'll clearly be facing a tougher lineup this time around, as Will Rhymes (.000 batting average), Ryan Raburn (.204) Don Kelly (.206), Gerald Laird (.182) and Danny Worth (.250) will be replaced by the likes of Robinson Cano (.328), A-Rod (85 RBIs) and Mark Teixeira (.360 in July).
Two things worth noting about Garza: he does his best work at the Trop (6-2 at home this year) and he doesn't cave under pressure, keeping opposing hitters to a .230 average with runners in scoring position.
NEWS ITEM: Mets honor Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry
Actually, the club's Hall of Fame ceremony this weekend will include Davey Johnson and former GM Frank Cashen. The latter two were easy choices, as they formed the braintrust of the '86-era teams. But including Strawberry and in particular, Gooden, represents a significant shift for the Wilpon family, which for years kept its distance from the renegades of the past.
Gooden isn't having an easy time lately, as he was arrested for driving while impaired in March. Even worse, his 5-year-old son was in the back without a seat belt. The Mets could've easily turned their backs on Gooden and revoked the Hall of Fame invitation, but chose not to.
Maybe Jeff Wilpon feels Doc has hit bottom too many times to merit another kick in he stomach. Whatever the owner's reason, it was the right thing to do. Gooden was the finest Mets pitcher of that generation, and certainly the greatest young star of the mid '80s. He deserves to be recognized for that.
NEWS ITEM: Stephen Strasburg heads to the disabled list.
Speaking of young stars, Strasburg's am problems are an awful red flag to the Nationals, given how young Strasburg is (21) and how carefully he was brought along by the team.
Who would've thought he'd ever experience tightness in his shoulder? Actually someone did -- White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, who told MLB Network Radio on Sirius XM that Strasburg's troubles were almost a prophecy.
That's because the rookie throws with what pitching coaches call "the inverted W," holding the ball below the elbow instead of above it. Kerry Wood does it. Mark Pryor did. So did John Smoltz. The unorthodox delivery puts strain on the inferior glenohumeral ligament, which explains why Strasburg couldn't get loose before his last start on Tuesday.
Cooper thinks this is only the beginning, too.
"I'm not wishing (Strasburg) bad," he said, "but he does something with his arm that is difficult, in my mind, to pitch a whole lot of innings on."