The visiting Rangers have posted an 8-3 mark thus far in August, following a series victory against the Tigers, and lead the Yankees by a half-game for that top spot in the league. But Texas manager Ron Washington isn't focused on that particular race, at least for now.
"The only thing I'm concerned about is the Texas Rangers," he said before the Rangers' win over the Tigers on Sunday. "I know we're in the lead, and if we win, the lead remains. That's the only thing you can control. You can't control what Oakland does. You can't control what Anaheim does. You can't control what nobody does except yourself. As long as we win, we know we've got the lead. It's simple. The best record only matters on October 2."
Texas and New York hold solid leads in their respective divisions as they enter their only regular-season series at Yankee Stadium. The Rangers beat the Yankees in two of three games at home in April but have lost five straight in the Bronx, all last season.
"The only thing I want to do is play well," Washington said. "We don't play well in New York, except for in the playoffs. We haven't played well there during the regular season. We hadn't played well in the regular season in Detroit, and we've started playing well in Detroit. Maybe this time through, we'll find that area where we can play well."
The Yankees are starting a seven-game homestand a day after seeing their four-game winning streak come to an end against the Blue Jays. They will have to go without ace CC Sabathia, who was scheduled to pitch the opener but instead went on the disabled list with left elbow inflammation.
Manager Joe Girardi will turn to rookie David Phelps, who gets a tough assignment in opposing the Rangers and Ryan Dempster.
"They are a very good club, we know that," Girardi said. "We are playing in really important games to get more distance in our division, and you are trying to play for home-field advantage. You are trying to play for a lot of things. They have the best record in the American League.
"You look at us and Texas, we have kind of been neck and neck for the best record in the American League the whole year. So yeah, [the games are] important."
Rangers: Dempster's back now monkey-free
Dempster gained a measure of relief on Tuesday, when he beat the Red Sox to pick up his first victory as a member of the Rangers in his second start since the Cubs dealt him prior to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
"Whether it's the start of the season or you're getting traded to a new team, getting that first win out of the way is that monkey off your back, especially after that first outing when I didn't throw the ball like I wanted to," he said. "Being able to go out and get a 'W' was really nice. Hopefully I'll be able to build off that."
Dempster, 6-5 with a 2.65 ERA overall, gave up three unearned runs on a seventh-inning homer but otherwise blanked Boston over 6 2/3 inning. He struck out six and walked one and noticed a difference from his first Rangers appearance, when he surrendered eight runs.
"I think just fastball command, keeping the ball down," he said. "Especially when you're facing good lineups, you obviously have to be aggressive in the strike zone keeping the ball down, and keeping it out of the fat part of the plate. Those are the necessities, and I was able to do a better job of that last time out, versus the time before."
Yankees: Big cleats to fill for Phelps
Phelps has spent most of his rookie season in the bullpen, making 19 relief appearances, but has excelled when called upon to start. He hasn't lasted through five innings in any of his three outings, but has posted a 2.08 ERA.
Phelps' first two starts came in May. His last came on July 4, when he held the Rays to one run on two hits in 4 1/3 innings, striking out a career-high eight. In seven relief appearances since, the 25-year-old has tossed 10 2/3 shutout innings, with 14 strikeouts and two walks.
This time, he will be taking the ball in place of a former Cy Young Award winner. Phelps believes he'll be good for 75-80 pitches.
"Hopefully go out there and learn from what I did last time and give us a chance to win," he said. "It's a huge series."
The Rangers have scored 71 runs in 11 August games after plating a Major League-worst 81 in July.
Dempster has never pitched at the new Yankee Stadium, and last pitched at the previous version in 2000, with the Marlins.