The Yankees now have an important stretch of games against division opponents

Masahiro Tanaka pitching earlier this season.

Masahiro Tanaka pitching earlier this season.

The Yankees (35-33) are now in sole possession of second place in the America League East after the Baltimore Orioles lost 5-4 to the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night. The Bronx Bombers are 4.5 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays, who they play starting tonight, and to get closer to first place they will have to play well in their upcoming nine games against the teams at the top of the division.

Overall, they play their next 15 games against division opponents, but their next nine include three against the Blue Jays at home, three against the Orioles at home and then three games in Toronto. They play the Boston Red Sox and then the Rays at the end of the stretch of division games, but they are fourth and fifth in the division, respectively, which makes the games against Toronto and Baltimore more important.

In April, the Yankees won two out of their three games that they played against the Blue Jays, but the Blue Jays went onto win seven of their next 11 games to set the tone for their surprising start to the season where they have been the best team in the AL East. They also played very well in the second half of May as they won 13 16 games to end the month. Toronto lost six of their last nine games, but they still have the best offense in baseball (top five in six categories) and a pitching staff that has done better than they were expected to.

Also in April, the Yankees lost two of the three games that they played against the Orioles. Ivan Nova allowed seven earned runs in the 14-5 loss that they had in the series. Nova would only make two more starts before having to miss the rest of the season due to Tommy John surgery. Vidal Nuno, who has a 5.90 ERA, replaced Nova in the rotation, and he is next scheduled to pitch in the series against the Orioles.

The Orioles (35-34) have the fourth best batting average in all of baseball and have hit the fifth most homers (75). However, Matt Wieters, who is their All-Star catcher who had hit five homers so far, will miss the rest of the season because of Tommy John surgery. He is one player that the Orioles will miss, but their lineup is deep with J.J. Hardy, Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Manny Machando and Nick Markakis.

The Yankees are coming into this important stretch of games in June with a number of players hitting well including Jacoby Ellsbury and Derek Jeter. Ellsbury was 0-7 in the two losses to Oakland, but he had a 17-game hitting streak that went from May 26-June 13. His average was .258 before the hitting steak and it is now .282, and he has 30 RBIs, 18 steals and 33 runs on the season.

Jeter comes into the series with a hit in eight of his past 10 games and has a multi-hit game in four of his past six games. His average was .254 on June 8 is now a more respectable .271. Jeter and Ellsbury are important hitters in the two and three spot in the lineup before Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. Teixeira leads the team in homers and RBIs and Beltran, even though he has a .171 average since coming off the DL, is an important power threat.

The missing link in the lineup so far this season has been McCann. He has a .274 career average and has hit 20 or more homers in each of his past six seasons, but he only has a .224 average and seven homers so far this season. He is struggling equally at home as on the road as he has a .223 average at Yankee Stadium and a .224 average on the road. McCann had played in the National League his whole career, which makes it seem like he is having a hard time adjusting to playing with the Yankees and in the American League.

McCann is due to improve his performance especially at Yankees Stadium based on how much success he has had in his career and how his swing is built for the dimensions at Yankee Stadium.

Toronto starters have pitched well this season, but they are not as good as the starters that the Yankees faced in Oakland. Winning two out of three is realistic at Rogers Centre. Masahiro Tanaka, who is 10-1 as a rookie, will start Wednesday night for the Yankees and Marcus Stroman, the rookie from Long Island, will get the start for the Blue Jays. If they can win six of their next nine games that would help push them closer to first and give the team needed momentum.

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