Round 1 in the heavyweight bout for American League East supremacy went to the division-leading New York Yankees in big way on Thursday night in St. Petersburg, Fla.
After beating the Tampa Bay Rays 7-2 in the first of 19 meetings this season, the Yankees will attempt pursue an encore on Friday night in the second game of a four-game series.
The usual suspects were at work for the visiting juggernauts as they earned a third straight won on Thursday, moving 19 games over .500.
Starting pitcher Nestor Cortes was brilliant through eight innings. He improved to 4-1, lowered his ERA to 1.70 and was victorious in his third straight start.
"When I went out there for the ninth and all those fans were cheering, I had goosebumps," said Cortes, who was bidding for his first career shutout and complete game but was removed after a leadoff single.
MVP candidate Aaron Judge did a little of everything. He singled, drove in two for his 10th multi-RBI game, scored, stole a base and walked.
The Yankees now will follow Cortes with a trio of tough starting pitchers: Jameson Taillon (4-1, 2.95 ERA) on Friday, Gerrit Cole (4-1, 3.31) on Saturday and Luis Severino (3-0, 3.02) on Sunday.
Since posting an 8-6 record and a 4.30 ERA in 2021 -- his first season in the Bronx -- Taillon has found his niche by utilizing better control of his pitches.
Last season, the Lakeland, Fla., native produced a walk rate of 7.3 percent, the second-highest mark of his career. But the former Pirates pitcher has bounced back with a career-best 2.8 percent through eight starts this season.
In four career starts against the Rays, the right-hander is 1-2 with a 3.26 ERA and a .256 opposition batting average in 19 1/3 innings.
Tampa Bay's newly converted starting pitcher Jeffrey Springs (2-1, 1.32 ERA) will take to the hill for the ninth time in his career against the Yankees. He is 0-0 with a 2.70 ERA in 10 innings pitched vs. New York.
In an opener role in 2018 with the Texas Rangers, the left-hander made two starting appearances, logging two- and three-inning outings.
Earlier this season, Rays manager Kevin Cash and pitching coach Kyle Snyder considered increasing Springs' pitch count and then decided to take the plunge and slide the former Appalachian State hurler into the rotation.
"We just like his stuff, like the way it's playing, like the way he's bouncing back," Cash said. "Definitely the changeup is kind of the equalizer to the righties, and being left-handed helps against the lefties."
That transition for Springs, 29, was prompted by the struggles and eventual demotion of southpaw Josh Fleming.
After a breakout 5-0 record and 2.78 ERA in 2020, Fleming regressed this season by wobbling through with a 2-3 record and a 6.83 ERA in six games. The latter number is deceiving because -- after allowing just one unearned run in 136 2/3 previous innings -- he has permitted 10 unearned to score in 18 1/3 innings this year.
That turned the job over to Springs, who has responded with a 1-1 slate and a 2.12 ERA across four starts. He has allowed four runs and 11 hits (a .186 batting average) in 17 innings during those games, with 16 strikeouts and four walks.
--Field Level Media