News Columns & Blogs

Playoff push starts tonight against Yanks

Here come the Yankees ...”

That’s how their theme song starts. “Here come the Yankees ...”

And the New York Yankees are really coming. They open a three-game series tonight at Tropicana Field against the defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays, who still have every intention of defending their crown.

The Yankees are in first place, 6.5 games ahead of the third-place Rays. They have won nine of their past 10. They have A.J. Burnett pitching tonight and CC Sabathia pitching Tuesday.

“It’s a big series,” Rays center fielder B.J. Upton told reporters in Toronto after Sunday’s loss to the Blue Jays. “We’ve got to be ready to play.”

Yes, we are now at that point of the season where we can label a series as “big,” and a homestand as “huge.”

This is a huge homestand for the Rays, who just finished a whacky 10-game road trip with six wins.

They open with three against the Yankees and finish with two against the Boston Red Sox. In between are four games against the last-place Kansas City Royals.

That’s five games against the two teams ahead of them in the American League East standings; two chances to cut into the Red Sox’s lead in the wild card and three chances to inch closer to the Yankees.

Five big games that can push the Rays closer to a playoff berth or drop them further down the standings.

This is what Rays manager Joe Maddon has been asking for: a homestand with some length. The schedule maker gave the Rays just two nine-game homestands this season. The first begins tonight. The second starts Aug. 14.

The schedule maker also had the Rays open the second half of the season with 10 road games in 10 days. Thanks to a newfound ability for come-from-behind victories, the Rays negotiated that potential season-killer and managed to stay in the playoff picture.

Now they can put a dent in the Yankees’ lead and make a move on the Red Sox without needing help from other teams.

And they get to do it at Tropicana Field, under the friendly Teflon sky where the Rays are a .667 team.

Of course, the Trop will see its share of Yankees fans these next three nights since the Bombers come to town as division leaders for the first time since September 2006. Note to the Rays: Get the early lead and take the crowd out of the game.

A big series to start a big homestand that can determine the Rays’ playoff fate.

What was it Upton said? They “got” to be ready?

No, they better be ready.