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Another AL East battle looms: Yanks vs. Rays

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Jose Molina tags out

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Jose Molina tags out New York Yankees Robinson Cano after Nick Swisher hit into a fourth-inning fielder's choice during their baseball game at Yankee Stadium. (May 8, 2012) Credit: AP

Call it the AL Beast.

The Rays and Yankees start a three-game series in the Bronx on Tuesday night with first place on the line.

But right now, every intradivision series has those stakes, or comes close to it.

"Every year it's tough, but it seems like this year it's the toughest [it's been]," Alex Rodriguez said. "This division has unbelievable parity and it just keeps getting better."

Tampa Bay, with former Yankee Hideki Matsui now in its lineup, is 31-23 and takes a one-game lead over Baltimore (30-24) into the series. The Rays lead the Yankees (29-24) by 11/2 games. Toronto and Boston are tied for "last," three games back at 28-26.

"I think any time we're playing teams in our division now, they're big just because of the way we're all squished together," Joe Girardi said. "It's amazing. It's weird to look up and see everybody's above .500. Usually you don't see that."

(In a quirk, each team in the NL East also entered Monday above .500.)

The last time every AL East team was above .500 this late in the season was at the close of play June 13, 2008. But in 2008 -- when Tampa Bay won the division, Boston took the wild card and the Yankees missed the playoffs -- the Orioles slid fast on their way to a 68-93 finish and, to a degree, could be counted on for some easy victories. (Toronto finished 86-76.)

This season, scouts have talked about a division that doesn't appear to be top-heavy. Each team has its strengths and each has its weaknesses. And though few expect Baltimore or Toronto to win the division, neither has the look of a team that suddenly will plummet well below .500.

"We knew this division was going to be very good, and it has been," Mark Teixeira said. "There's just no easy games in our division. There's not a team that we're going to beat up on. And so you can't afford to get too far down because there are some years where you might be five games out but there's only one team in front of you. This year, every team has a winning record, so if you get too far down, you're going to have four teams to jump over."

Girardi said it's not complex why the division has been so difficult.

"The simple answer is teams got better," he said. "You look at Baltimore and Toronto, their young players developed. You look at Tampa, and their young pitching has been really good since '08. One guy leaves and another guy steps up and does the job. The emergence of Baltimore's bullpen has really helped them and their starters have been a lot better. It's just been teams improving."

The obstacle the next three days is, as Girardi mentioned, the Tampa Bay rotation. The Rays enter the series ranked second in the AL with a 3.37 ERA (entering Monday night, the Angels were first at 3.33).

Andy Pettitte (2-2, 3.49) goes against James Shields (6-3, 3.95) Tuesday night, followed by Ivan Nova (6-2, 5.60) vs. rookie Alex Cobb (2-1, 3.71) on Wednesday night. Thursday night features a battle of aces with CC Sabathia (7-2, 3.68) taking on David Price (7-3, 2.44).

Though the Yankees' rotation ranks 11th in the AL with a 4.64 ERA, it performed well, for the most part, on the recent trip to Oakland, Anaheim and Detroit in which the team went 6-3.

"Our pitching's coming around," Russell Martin said. "It just seems like the whole team's starting to play good baseball. Everybody's doing their thing, everybody's chipping in. Good teams are able to do that. We know we have a good staff and now we're starting to show it."

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