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TOR@NYY: Phelps K's eight over seven strong innings

One year ago on May 22, the roles were reversed: The Rays had a 26-18 record and a 3 1/2-game lead over the Yankees for second place in the American League East. Yet it was the Yanks who ended up taking the division title.

As the two teams prepare to start a three-game series on Friday, the Yankees find themselves in first place with a four-game lead over the fourth-place Rays.

"I think this division, although it's shaken up right now and it's probably not what everybody would have predicted the first day of the season, I think it's going to be pretty similar to what people predict in the end," said Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. "All the teams are going to be closely bunched up. The Red Sox have been scuffling a little bit, but they're going to hang around. They're not going anywhere. Their starting pitching is too good. And the Yankees, when they get healthy, they're already playing tremendous as it is. When they get all of their guys back, it's going to be chaos. And so it will be fun."

The Yankees are set to begin the series without Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Kevin Youkilis and Francisco Cervelli, all of whom are on the disabled list.

Yet the Yankees still jumped out to their fourth-best start through 45 games over the last 25 years.

"It doesn't surprise me," Longoria said. "I mean, everybody has come to expect the Yankees to be this lineup of big-name All-Stars that everybody knows their names and you can go one through nine and name all the Yankees in the lineup.

"That doesn't take away from the fact that they have good players on their team, whether or not you know who they are, or if the common person could name them all. They are a team that's playing as a team. They've figured out ways to win. They've been throwing the ball really well. Those are the teams that are really scary.

"Take us in 2008. Nobody knew who we were. But we played really well together as a team and figured out how to win."

One Yankee who has embraced the "next man up" mentality is Friday's starter, 26-year-old righty David Phelps, who has made two straight starts in which he's allowed just one run over at least 6 2/3 innings.

Even more impressive: He's been better out of the rotation. In four starts, opponents are hitting .233 off him, as opposed to .262 when he comes out of the bullpen.

The Rays send Roberto Hernandez to the mound, and he certainly hopes to pitch better than he has against the Yankees, who have knocked him around to a 7.16 ERA over his career.

Hernandez is 2-4 with a 5.24 ERA this season.

Rays: Attendance boost expected
The Rays are averaging just 17,936 fans per home game this season, 28th in the Majors, but they typically draw some of their biggest crowds when the Yankees are in town.

Longoria is hoping that attendance figures start to rise.

"If we continue to play the way we've been playing, it's inevitable," he said. "That's always been our thought process. When you play well, you bring the people out, and you just hope they realize how well you're playing and how important their support is to your success.

"We've talked about it so many times, how our record when the building is full is pretty good. And we do enjoy playing in front of our home fans. Hopefully, it starts to get a little better."

Tampa Bay ranked last in the Majors in 2012, with 19,255 fans per game.

Yankees: Rivera insists he will retire
Through 45 games, 43-year-old Mariano Rivera has 17 saves and is on pace to close out about 61, which would put him within reach of the all-time record, held by Francisco Rodriguez, who saved 62 with the Angels in 2008.

But despite his recent dominance, he plans on retiring after the season.

"I feel good," Rivera said. "Just going out there day in and day out, giving my best, everything that I have. I always feel confidence, always, no matter what the situation is. I always have confidence in my teammates, confidence in myself, and the rest keeps moving."

Despite the heavy workload, Rivera feels healthy.

"Definitely, you're pitching more, so the sharpness is going to be there, but at the same time, you're pitching more, so it's a lot of wear and tear," he said. "As long as you stay healthy and do what you have to do to be ready to perform at that time and the way that we're going, you don't think about it. You just have to continue."

Worth noting
• Veteran Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte (strained left trapezius) will play catch on Thursday in Tampa, Fla., and would then progress to long-tossing. On the disabled list retroactive to May 17, he would need to throw a bullpen session and a simulated game before returning.

• Teixeira (right wrist) and Youkilis (sprained lumbar) each had six at-bats in simulated action on Wednesday in Tampa.

• Matt Joyce, who left Tuesday's game with tightness in his right hamstring, expects to be back in the lineup on Friday.

• Alex Cobb swapped spots in the Rays' rotation with rookie Jake Odorizzi. Cobb will now start the final game of the Yankees series, on Sunday.

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