The New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays currently sit atop the American League with identical 81-50 records. With only 31 games to go and seven head-to-head meetings left, expect the battle to end in a photo finish. The Yankees play 16 of their last 31 at the New House while the Rays will play 14 at the Trop. The Rays have a slight schedule advantage in terms of opponents, playing teams with a combined .480 winning percentage while Yankee opponents have a .520 winning percentage. The cozy Tropicana Field will be waiting with open arms on September 13th, but before then, it’s time for the Yankees to fatten up at home.

The Yankees won their first of ten straight home contests handily last night, 11-5. With three more against the A’s, accompanied by three against the Blue Jays and Orioles, it’s time to get on a roll. The Yankees are 3-3 at home against the Blue Jays, but have only lost twice in twelve contests against the Orioles. Granted, the Yankees have yet to face the Buck Showalter-led Birds, but the faces on the team are still the same. A 8-2 home stand would put the Yankees at 88-52 before hitting the road for nine games against the Rangers, Rays, and O’s. Maximizing wins now is important before the team faces the Rays and Red Sox thirteen times over their final nineteen games.

To win games, the Yankees need to put their best product on the field and we don’t have that right now. Lance Berkman is eligible to come off the disabled list on Wednesday. With six home runs in his last six games, Marcus Thames may not cool off, keeping Berkman planted on the pine. Even though our beloved Bombers are 15-2 without the AL’s third highest run producer (Alex Rodriguez), they need him back in the lineup. Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano have carried the load in A-Rod’s absence, but #13’s pure presence alone gives opposing pitchers fits. Rodriguez (calf) is eligible to come off the disabled list on Sunday and is expected to contribute right away.

The most important piece to the Yankee postseason is...Andy Pettitte’s groin? Pettitte has been out since July with a strained groin. However, Pettitte had an encouraging bullpen session on Monday. Pettitte is expected to have a very rigorous bullpen session on Wednesday as he aims a mid-September return.

With AJ Burnett losing his last four decisions, Javier Vazquez’s demotion to the bullpen, and Phil Hughes nearing a mandated innings limit, the Yankees desperately need Pettitte’s stability back in the rotation. His health and ability to regain his All-Star stuff is the key for the Yanks bringing home #28.

The Rays aren’t going anywhere. David Price’s 98 MPH fastball will be waiting for the Yankees in September. James Shields hasn’t pitched that well this year (13-11, 4.73 ERA), but has beaten the Yankees twice. Carlos Pena has hit five homers in 32 at-bats. Rafael Soriano has saved 39 games. This team is goooood.

But we’re pretty damn good too. CC Sabathia (18-5, 3.12 ERA) is the leading candidate for the AL Cy Young Award. Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira are in-line for Gold Gloves while Nick Swisher is having a career-year. Mariano is Mariano while the bullpen has a 1.92 ERA in August. It’s going to be a dog fight.

Let’s not forget about the September call-ups. Even though both players were brought up in August, Ivan Nova and Jeremy Hellickson of the Rays have made immediate impacts on their respective starting rotations. Expect to see the Rays call up Desmond Jennings and the Yanks to bring up Jon Albaladejo (No Montero this year, kiddos). Sometimes, these late call-ups can light a fire under their teams. Not wasting anytime, Nova and Hellickson have brought their lighters to the Big Leagues…

So, there are 31 games left in the 2010 regular season. 100 wins should be enough to win the AL East.

First to 19, takes home field advantage…