ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have another chance this weekend to further threaten the Yankees’ hold on the American League East, and they’ll have Wander Franco along to help.
The dynamic shortstop headed from Durham, North Carolina, to meet the team in New York and is expected to be activated from the injured list and in the lineup for Friday’s opener of the three-game series.
The Rays made the decision to accelerate Franco’s return after he had a strong showing in a rehab game for the Bulls Wednesday night, going 3-for-5 and playing nine innings at shortstop. “A huge step,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said.
Franco has been out since breaking the hamate bone in his right hand on a swing July 9. He had surgery three days later, and his return has had some delays.
He started a rehab assignment Aug. 16 but left the game after batting twice due to soreness. He started playing again Sunday and left Monday’s game due to discomfort. But he felt good Tuesday and returned to action Wednesday. He originally was scheduled to play with Durham through Saturday.
Franco, who missed time early the season with lower-leg issues, is hitting .260 with five homers, 23 RBIs and a .704 OPS over 58 games in his sophomore big-league season.
The Rays have been playing well with Taylor Walls handling shortstop in Franco’s absence, especially recently. They have won eight of their last nine games (including two of three from the Yankees last weekend), 19 of 24 and an American League-best 23 of 33 since the start of August.
Having been 15½ games behind the Yankees the night of July 10, the Rays got as close as four after beating them Saturday at Tropicana Field. They roll into the Bronx on Friday 4½ games out (three in the loss column) after Minnesota beat New York 4-3 Thursday night.
“Every game’s important, and it’s another big series in the division,” Rays pitcher Jeffrey Springs said. “Every game from here on out is crucial. Playing in that atmosphere is fun, and then playing against the best is fun. And right now, they’re at the top of the East, so it’s going to be a fun weekend, for sure.”
Brandon Lowe, who missed the last Yankees series with an injury, is eager to be part of it.
“I’m absolutely going to be more than excited,” he said. “I feel like any series we ever have against the Yankees, Yankees fans show out. Our fans show out. We’re both very good teams, and I feel like it’s always a great series and it’s great baseball to watch. So, you know, it’s always more fun to be a part of it than watching it on the sidelines.”
The Yankees lead the season series 9-7, but the Rays have won the last two matchups, taking four of six. The losses were narrow, 8-7 on a 10th-inning walkoff grand slam Aug. 17 in New York and 2-1 Sunday at Tropicana Field, with Yandy Diaz called out on a questionable third strike for the final out with two runners on base.
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The Yankees have been struggling, including a 9-20 stretch between their 70th win on Aug. 1 and their 80th on Sunday. But the Rays are well aware of the challenges of their Aaron Judge-led lineup and pitching, and the likely hostile setting that awaits them at Yankee Stadium.
“You know that environment, it’s always going to bring the best out of you,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We know what’s ahead of us with New York. We just played them. They’re very, very good. And we’ve got to play good baseball.”
Turning the AL East into a race has been an admirable accomplishment, and the Rays can make it more interesting with a sweep this weekend. But given the gap, and the toughness of the Rays’ remaining schedule (including nine games with the Blue Jays, six with the Astros and three with the Guardians), their chances of winning the division still seem remote.
More likely, their focus will end up on the AL wild-card chase. The Rays lead the race for the three spots, one game ahead of the Mariners, 1½ in front of the Blue Jays and six games over the fourth-place Orioles.
“I think every game from here on out’s going to be fun,” Walls said. “Every team we’re playing, it’s going to be a good environment. Every game’s going to matter. Every game’s going to have something on the line. We’re going to have to bring it, but we are going to.”
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