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SportsColumnistsAnthony Rieber

Yankees showed their talent against Rays and Twins, but series with Astros will be a true test

Yankees' Gleyber Torres is embraced by Cameron Maybin

Yankees' Gleyber Torres is embraced by Cameron Maybin and congratulated by Edwin Encarnacion after his grand slam against the Tampa Bay Rays during the seventh inning of an MLB baseball game at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Yankees are always going to say respectful things about the Tampa Bay Rays, the scrappy little team with the openers and the no-name lineup and the miniscule home attendance.

But as the Yankees completed a three-game sweep of the Rays on Wednesday with a 12-1 victory at Yankee Stadium, we couldn’t help but focus on the disparity between the Yankees and their closest competitor in the AL East.

Not the financial disparity. You already know about that and it’s huge. We’re talking about the talent disparity, which is much larger than the 3½-game lead the Yankees have in the division.

It’s that talent gap that has us believing there is no way the Yankees would ever lose to Tampa Bay in a playoff series. And we feel the same way about one of their other AL competitors, the Minnesota Twins, who went into Wednesday with baseball’s best record.

No, for the Yankees to be denied this postseason — and don’t kid yourself, that’s where this season is heading and is how this Yankees team will ultimately be judged — it’s just impossible to imagine it being at the hands of the Rays or Twins.

That’s where the next series comes in. Starting Thursday night, the Yankees will host the Houston Astros for four games. It’s the last time the Yankees will see the 2017 World Series champions and current AL West leaders — unless they meet in October.

The way things are going, we expect them to meet in October. And then we’ll all find out if the Yankees have what it takes to be the last team standing instead of what they were the last two seasons — eliminated by the last team standing (Houston in 2017, Boston in 2018).

“It’ll be a playoff-like atmosphere,” Luke Voit said. 

In Wednesday’s quieter matinee, CC Sabathia picked up his 250th victory as the Yankees improved to 7-2 vs. Tampa Bay by knocking out reigning AL Cy Young award winner Blake Snell in a six-run first inning. Snell recorded one out, which is two fewer than Tampa Bay usually gets from its industry-changing openers.

It was 3-0 three batters in as Gary Sanchez hit a three-run homer to right to jumpstart the Yankees’ fifth straight win. The Yankees were without Giancarlo Stanton and Didi Gregorius, who were resting, and Aaron Judge, who is finishing his rehab at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and should be in the lineup against Houston on Friday.

It’s that potential lineup, almost all together at last, that has Yankees fans doodling power-packed batting orders like a daydreaming teenager writing candy hearts and LOLs in a school notebook.

Admit it, you’ve done it in the last few days, with Stanton and Judge on the mend and AL home run leader Edwin Encarnacion joining the band. Who bats where? Is Gleyber Torres, who hit a grand slam in the Yankees’ six-run seventh, really going to hit ninth?

Even Hal Steinbrenner has done it.

“I’ve already written it on a piece of paper,” Steinbrenner admitted at the owners’ meetings in Manhattan. “I don’t even need to daydream.”

That lineup will get tested the next four days against the Astros, who had an 8½-game lead in the AL West heading into Wednesday and were second in the AL in ERA at 3.60. Houston, which has lost four in a row, swept a three-game series against the Yankees at Minute Maid Park in April.

The Astros, who just got Jose Altuve back from the injured list and are waiting on George Springer to return, have hit more home runs than the Yankees, 118-117. And Houston has something the Yankees lack: a true ace in Justin Verlander, who vanquished the Yankees in the 2017 ALCS and will face them on Sunday.

Asked about the Yankees’ rotation, Steinbrenner said: “It’s still a concern. Pitching is still a concern.”

The Yankees will use an opener in Chad Green on Thursday (thank you, Rays, you industry influencers). Then it’s James Paxton on Friday in what should be Judge’s first game since April 20.

“Those guys are rolling up there,” Judge said on Tuesday, according to Conor Foley of the Scranton (Pa.) Times-Tribune. “So I don't know if I can crack that lineup.”

Ha, ha. He can.

But can the Yankees crack the Astros? We’ll start to see in the next four days.

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