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08/30/10 6:40 PM ET

Yanks looking to break free of Rays

Win, lose or rainout, the Yankees are in lock-step with their closest competition for the American League East crown. Through Monday's games, New York and Tampa Bay have been tied at the top of their standings for eight straight days, and after forging a comeback win on Monday, the Yankees will be hoping to gain ground when they resume their series against the A's on Tuesday.

Interestingly, New York and Tampa Bay's tie seems to have set a modern-day record. The last time that two teams were tied at the top of a division for an extended period of time this late into the season was 1980, when the Dodgers and Astros locked up at the top of the National League West for seven straight days in September.

Truth be told, the Yankees probably aren't too concerned with the trivialities of such obscure records. Instead, the defending World Series champions are focused on seizing control of their division and giving themselves the best possible chance to advance through October and back to the familiar turf of the winner's circle.

"The division is very important," said New York manager Joe Girardi. "I would love to have the home-field advantage, but you can't do that at the risk of injuring someone. That's the one thing that you have to avoid during this."

Girardi would also like to avoid his team falling flat, and he can thank the schedule for making that a near impossibility.

The Yankees -- who took over the division lead on June 20 and have remained alone or tied for first place for all but one day since then -- will play 25 of their final 31 games against teams at or above the break-even mark.

In fact, after this four-game series ends, 25 of New York's final 28 games will come against division rivals. That just sets the bar high for the Yankees, giving them perspective on the final weeks of the season.

"We know they're extremely important," said Girardi. "But we said in February that this was going to be an extremely tough division and was going to go down to the wire. Obviously, these next 32 games are real important."

The A's, who are playing through their longest road trip of the season, are living with the same kind of circumstances. Oakland has a 13-14 record in August -- best among AL West teams -- but has rested between seven and 10 games out of first place in the division on every day since June 25.

New York will start Phil Hughes in Tuesday's game, and Oakland will counter with Hackensack, N.J., native Vin Mazzaro.

Both starters are searching for a reversal of fortune, with Mazzaro coming off four straight losses and Hughes -- having been hit hard in Toronto his last time out -- trying to avoid the first back-to-back losing starts of his season. The Yankees are still trying to figure out where they should draw a line for Hughes, deciding just how many innings he can pitch in his first full year as a big league starter.

"I've said all along that Phil Hughes' numbers are not dependent on someone else," Girardi said. "They're dependent on his numbers. Someone asked me about the silver lining in the Toronto game, and I would have much rather we won the game and he went deep. ... It's possible he could make all of his starts the rest of the way out."

A's: Mazzaro progressing
Mazzaro moved into the rotation back in June due to an injury to southpaw Brett Anderson, and he's pitched to a 5-6 record and a 3.26 ERA since then. So far, the A's are pleased with his progress.

"He's just done a lot better with everything this year," said A's manager Bob Geren. "His command of the breaking ball is much better. He's commanding both sides of the plate, which he struggled with last year."

Yankees: Thames hitting stride
Marcus Thames has homered in five straight starts for the Yankees, perhaps making a case for meaningful playing time in the playoffs. Thames batted just .294 with three home runs in the first half of the season, but he's come roaring out of the gates in the second half, batting .348 (23-for-66) with six home runs in his last 23 games.

And if Thames has been doing it in recent weeks, the Yankees have been getting steady play from their double-play combination all season long. Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano are well celebrated for their offensive exploits, but they went into Monday's game leading the league in fielding percentage at their respective positions.

Why is that notable? You have to go back nearly a decade to find the last team -- the 2001 Indians, with Roberto Alomar and Omar Vizquel -- that had a middle infield lead the league in fielding percentage.

Worth noting
New York's Triple-A affiliate, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, clinched its fifth consecutive division title on Sunday, setting a new standard for the International League. ... The Yankees are 18-4 against the A's since the start of the 2008 season and 37-18 against them since the beginning of the '04 campaign. ... New York is now a season-high 31 games above .500. ... The Yankees have scored the first run in six of their past eight games and are 45-15 in those circumstances this season. ... The A's are 16-27 in series openers this season, but they improve to 21-21 in the second game of a series. ... Oakland is playing through its longest road trip of the season, a 10-game excursion, and is 4-3 through seven games. ... The A's have a Major League-high 52 stolen bases since the All-Star break, and 117 -- third in the AL -- all season.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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