A quarter of the way into the 2010 season, the Yankees are on pace for a 101 win season.  They lead the majors in runs scored.  Their offense is still the feared Bronx Bombers.

So why does it feel like tonight’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays is a “must win?”

Baseball fans would say it’s only May.  Yankees fans would say check with them come September.  But Rays fans might say divisions can be won and lost in the first six weeks.

A loss tonight and the Yankees fall behind five games to the league-leading Rays.  That’s a sizable lead in such a short amount of time.  But that’s not a knock on the Yankees, instead it’s a compliment and acknowledgment of the Rays.

The Rays have the MLB’s best pitching in the first quarter of the season.  Their depth showed last night when their No. 5 rookie starter, Wade Davis, out-pitched the $82 million man, A.J. Burnett.

Sure, Yankees fans could argue how beat up they are.  Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, Jorge Posada, Marcus Thames (among others) have spent time in the “day-to-day” area.  But the Rays have also been without Kelly Shoppach, Matt Joyce, J.P. Howell, and just designated-for-assignment the ineffective Pat Burrell.

So why is this a “must win” for the Bronx Bombers?

You never want to get swept at home, even if it’s only a two game set.  You don’t want to fall too far behind any team in your division.  Baseball is a game all about pacing.  But you don’t want your mindset to be one constantly needing to play catch up.

Sometimes you never catch up.

The Yankees have history on their side.  In 2005, the Yanks were in fourth place in the AL East, 16-19, 6.5 games behind the Orioles on May 12. They finished 95-67, good enough to share first place with the Boston Red Sox. The Orioles finished fourth with a 74-88 record. In 2007, the Yankees hit May 12 in third place, seven games behind the Red Sox, with a 17-18 record. They went 77-50 the rest of the way and captured the wild card.

And the team this year already boasts the second best record in baseball.

The problem is, the team with the best record also lies in their division.

It may only be May, but there will be some long summer nights if the Yankees fall too far behind.

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