Without Luke Voit, the New York Yankees battle the Toronto Blue Jays in opener

Mar 26, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) pitches in the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles during spring training at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Yankees started last season quickly and then wound up unsuccessfully chasing the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East.

This season, many expect the AL East to be decided between the Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays. Their 19-game season series gets underway Thursday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, which will welcome fans back at 20-percent capacity.

Hyun-Jin Ryu (5-2, 2.69 ERA) will oppose Gerrit Cole (7-3, 2.84) in a matchup of aces coming off strong first seasons for their respective teams.

New York is coming off its fourth straight postseason appearance but did not add much to a roster that lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5 of the American League Division Series when Aroldis Chapman allowed a tiebreaking homer to Mike Brosseau in the eighth inning. The Yankees’ only major move was re-signing DJ LeMahieu to a six-year deal.

“We understand we’re a talented team, but we also understand we haven’t done anything yet,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said after the final exhibition game on Monday. “We hope we started to lay a foundation to be a championship club. A lot of guys have been here now for a few years and experienced a lot of highs and playoff success, playoff failures and disappointing ends to the season.”

This time, the Yankees are banking that Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton can make it through a season fully healthy after both were productive when they played last season. Judge batted .257 with nine homers and 22 RBIs, but calf injuries limited him to 28 games. Stanton batted .250 with four homers and 11 RBIs in 23 games while missing time with a hamstring injury but he dominated in the postseason by hitting .308 (8-for-26) with six homers and 13 RBIs.

The Yankees are also anticipating struggles that Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez endured were an aberration. Torres batted .243 with three homers and 16 RBIs while Sanchez struggled all season, hitting .147 with 10 homers and 24 RBIs.

The two newcomers to the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup are Clint Frazier and Jay Bruce. Frazier was named the starting left fielder after hitting .267 with eight homers and 26 RBIs in 39 games last season while Bruce was named the starting first baseman because Luke Voit underwent knee surgery on Monday after leading the majors with 22 homers last season.

The Blue Jays are entering a season with similar expectations they faced in 2015 and 2016 when they made consecutive trips to the American League Championship Series.

This time, the Blue Jays added significantly to their young core of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio. Toronto added George Springer and Marcus Semien in free agency a year after adding Ryu as a free agent.

“It’s an exciting time to have the Blue Jays adding pieces,” Semien said. “With this young group, and the new pieces we have, we’re just going to have to learn how to play together and it’ll be a beautiful thing.”

Toronto’s young trio was productive. Bichette batted .301 with five homers and 23 RBIs, Biggio hit .250 with eight homers and 28 RBIs and Guerrero batted .262 with nine homers and 33 RBIs before losing more than 40 pounds in the offseason.

Springer joined the Blue Jays on a six-year, $150 million deal but is uncertain for Opening Day due to an oblique injury. If Springer sits out, Semien will likely be the leadoff hitter.

Ryu is 1-2 with a 6.04 ERA in four career starts against the Yankees, although he limited New York to five hits in seven scoreless innings on Sept. 24.

Cole ended last season by posting a 1.00 ERA in his final four starts. Cole went 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA in two starts against Toronto last season and is 3-0 with a 2.88 ERA in four career starts against the Blue Jays.

–Field Level Media