Yankees are ready to romp after seizing division lead

NEW YORK -- This coming week has the potential to be the most important of the New York Yankees ' schedule. Feel free to consider that hyperbole. But it's not.

If by late September the American League East race and/or the wild-card chase end up coming down to the regular season's final seven days, and the Yankees are in the thick of the action, just remember this story and this week. And if the Yankees go on a tear this week that they ride the rest of the year to a comfortable AL East lead, remember this story and this week.

(And, of course, if none of that happens, go on and burn this piece from your memory.)

Because of this weekend's series win over the Tampa Bay Rays -- punctuated by Sunday's 13-5 thumping by the Yankees -- the Bronx Bombers are now in first place in the AL East. They're also in prime position to stay there for quite some time, thanks in large part to what they have ahead of them on the near horizon.

Behold, the Bombers' upcoming schedule: they go to Baltimore, then Kansas City, then come back home to face San Diego. That's seven games against teams that already have a combined 60 losses, finishing up with three at home against a club that finished Sunday a game under .500.

What a time to be wearing pinstripes.

"We're playing a team that we should get some wins against, and our team is in a good position right now," center fielder Aaron Hicks said, referring to the four-game set the Yankees have at Baltimore starting Monday. "It's where we want to be."

The Yankees are already 6-2 against the Orioles, a team that was a real bugaboo last year. Despite being the worst team in baseball, the 2018 Orioles nevertheless took seven of 19 from the 2018 Yankees. Five of those seven wins came before the All-Star break. And much as with the Orioles, this year's Yankees have had early-season success versus Kansas City, too. The Yankees took three of four from the Royals in the Bronx last month.

"We've played Baltimore already, we've played Kansas City already, we know what we're getting into," outfielder Brett Gardner said. "Feels like it'll be a good matchup for us. We'll just take things one day at a time, and we'll keep playing good baseball."

Good baseball is precisely what the Yankees have been playing for the past month. Since April 19, they are 20-7, earning the best record in the big leagues across that span. As has been mentioned often since then, the Yankees have notched that record while a bevy of key players have languished on the injured list. In all, 17 Yankees have landed on the IL this season.

"It just proves the fight that our team has, and that we really are doing the next man up," Hicks said. "Guys are performing and doing what they can to help this team win."

Virtually all of those wins this past month have featured a different hero -- one of any of a half-dozen players hardly anyone could have foreseen contributing back in spring training.

One of the overnight replacement stars, third baseman Gio Urshela, had his own understudy factor into Sunday's big win. It was after he fouled a ball off the plate and into a sensitive area of his body that Urshela came out of the game in the sixth inning, replaced by pinch hitter Thairo Estrada. Urshela is expected to be OK.

The 23-year-old Estrada, who overcame a gunshot wound last year that stemmed from a robbery attempt in his native Venezuela, has been one of the most unlikely weapons on the Yankees' early-season roster. And with the bases loaded and two outs, Estrada hammered a 2-1 sinker, turning on the 94 mph pitch and sending it down the third-base line. At the end of the bases-clearing double, the Yankees had pushed their lead to 10-5, effectively putting the game out of Tampa Bay's reach.

"Thairo, to me, has been one of the faces of what we're doing right now," manager Aaron Boone said. "Missing a lot of last year, this guy's a prospect, in a lot of ways. We kind of rushed him up here and threw him into the fire, and he's handled every situation perfectly.

"Every time we're in a situation middle of the game, or we're thinking through a possible move, he's thinking along with the game, he's prepared, he goes out there and plays with a calm and a poise."

It's almost as if he plays as if he knows he's going to succeed.

According to Gardner -- who had a 3-for-5 afternoon that included a homer, two runs scored and three RBIs while hitting eighth instead of his customary leadoff -- Estrada isn't the only one playing that way.

"We show up here every day and we expect to win," Gardner said. "It doesn't matter who's hitting first, who's hitting third or fifth. It doesn't matter who's pitching. It doesn't matter who we're playing. We expect to win every single day.

"Obviously, it might not quite be realistic, and we have our ups and our downs, but when we come to work every day, our expectation doesn't change. It doesn't matter what you did the rest of the day, or the last couple of days. Everybody has done a real good job this year of knowing what their role is, stepping up and doing their job, and we've played pretty well."

Estrada's double was one of two batted balls in the Yankees' seven-run sixth that made it past the infield. Other Yankees reached base that inning via a pair of infield singles and five walks, including one that was intentional. It was an exhibition in patience and winning with grinding small ball.

"That's a great example of, you control the strike zone, you can have an inning like that," Boone said. "And if you're playing against a team like Tampa Bay, you better control the strike zone, or they're going to make you look bad. That was a classic example there of making it really difficult on them, especially when they had [relievers Diego] Castillo and [Ryne] Stanek in that game. Those are really tough customers."

While the Yankees can help themselves and expand their AL East lead by beating up on some of MLB's worst teams this week, they could also get some help from the teams that play the Rays and the rival Boston Red Sox.

In Boston's case, trips to Toronto and Houston are on their upcoming schedule. As the Astros proved in taking two of three from this weekend's trip to Fenway Park, it won't be easy getting past them in another weekend series.

As for the Rays, the days ahead include a two-game series at home against the National League West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers, and a visit to Cleveland.

What a time to be wearing pinstripes, indeed.

With so many factors in their favor at this point of May, the Yankees are suddenly staring at the most important week of their schedule. Will they take advantage of it?