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Thursday, June 20, 2013
First Pitch: Finally, a familiar foe

By Kieran Darcy

NEW YORK -- After 15 consecutive games against teams from outside their division, the Yankees will play an American League East foe on Thursday, the Tampa Bay Rays.

It'll be the opener of a four-game series, with Andy Pettitte (5-4, 3.95) on the mound, opposed by Matt Moore (8-3, 4.12).

As we near the halfway point of the regular season, it feels like a good time to size up the AL East race.

The hottest team in the division is actually the last-place Toronto Blue Jays (35-36) -- 7.5 games out of first, but winners of eight in a row. Josh Johnson is back in the rotation, and Jose Reyes is about to begin a rehab assignment. The Jays may be factors in this thing after all.

Next from the bottom is the Rays (37-35), currently six games from the top. They had lost six of seven prior to winning on Wednesday. But 2012 Cy Young Award winner David Price is also about to start a rehab assignment, and should be back soon.

In third place? The Yankees (39-32), 3.5 games back. They've already put a player on the disabled list 16 times -- one shy of their total in 2012. They've already used 41 different players, after using 45 all of last year. Yet they're right in the thick of it, with several reinforcements (Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez) expected down the road.

In second place is the Baltimore Orioles (42-31), 1.5 games behind, and 7-3 in their last 10 games. Chris Davis is second in the American League in batting average (.337), first in home runs (26), and second in RBIs (66). As a team, the Orioles are second in the AL in runs scored. It appears last season was no fluke.

The only American League team that has scored more runs than the Orioles? You guessed it, the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox (44-30). They also have the fifth-best team ERA, led by Clay Buchholz (9-0, 1.71), who's tied for second in the league in wins and tops in ERA. Buchholz landed on the disabled list Tuesday, but he should be back before too long.

All in all, it looks like we've got five evenly matched teams, separated top-to-bottom by just 7.5 games, the tightest division in the major leagues.

It should be a fun summer.

UP NOW: The Yankees split a doubleheader with the Dodgers on Tuesday. Mariano Rivera struck out young phenom Yasiel Puig to end the first game -- click here to read Wallace Matthews' column. Hiroki Kuroda beat his former team, and Ichiro Suzuki had a big game.

The Dodgers won the nightcap 6-0, as Phil Hughes had yet another bad start.

ON DECK: The Yankees clubhouse will open at 3:20 p.m. on Thursday -- yours truly will be there, along with Mike Mazzeo.

QUESTION OF THE DAY: Who do you think is the best team in the AL East?