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This week's Yankees-Orioles showdown could be the start of an epic race for the AL East title

The New York Yankees played last weekend at Fenway Park against rival Boston. The Baltimore Orioles hosted three straight sellouts against Philadelphia in a series matching two of the top teams in baseball.

And that was somehow just the undercard.

Now for the main event: Starting on Tuesday night, New York hosts Baltimore for three games between the two clubs that have already opened up a big gap on the rest of the AL East. The Yankees are on pace to win 109 games, the Orioles 107. With only the division champion eligible to earn a postseason first-round bye, this could be the start of a compelling AL East title race.

“I think it should be fun,” Baltimore outfielder Colton Cowser said. “I think that any chance you go into Yankee Stadium, especially with the year they're having, it's going to be a really good environment.”

The tale of the tape is as follows: The Yankees (50-24) have the best record in baseball and the Orioles (47-24) are third. The Yankees have the game's top run differential and the Orioles are second. The Orioles are No. 1 in home runs and runs per game and the Yankees are No. 2 in both categories. The Yankees lead the major leagues in ERA and the Orioles are No. 2.

Baltimore, last year's division champ, has not lost any of its past 21 series against AL East foes, going 15-0-6. That includes winning three of four over the Yankees at Camden Yards about six weeks ago.

“I think both teams have clearly established themselves as really formidable, but at the same time, it is a marathon. We’ve got a long way to go,” New York manager Aaron Boone said. "I think right now all I can say is both teams are really good, really dangerous and have a lot of potential.”

Both teams rely on the long ball. New York's Aaron Judge leads the majors with 26, and sure enough it's a Baltimore player — Gunnar Henderson — in second place with 22. Juan Soto has 18 homers and Giancarlo Stanton 17 for the Yankees. The Orioles have five players with at least 11.

New York and Baltimore have faced significant pitching injuries — but in different ways. Reigning Cy Young Award winner Gerrit Cole hasn't pitched yet this season for the Yankees because of elbow nerbe inflammation, but the rest of the rotation has stepped up and five New York pitchers have started 70 of 74 games. The Orioles have had a healthy ace in Corbin Burnes, but the list of injuries to the rest of their staff is lengthy, with Félix Bautista, John Means and Tyler Wells out for the season and Kyle Bradish and Dean Kremer currently on the injured list.

“It’s a really good team. They’re very complete. They’ve had some injuries happen to their rotation, but their depth has served them well," Boone said. “They continue to get good starting pitching, been able to close out games and they have a versatile and dynamic offense. They can beat you with power, they can beat you with speed, they can match up against you.”

Burnes pitched Sunday against the Phillies and promising second-year right-hander Grayson Rodriguez worked Saturday. So the Yankees aren't slated to face either of them. Instead the Orioles have Albert Suárez, a journeyman who has posted a 1.61 ERA this year, starting the series opener. Then rookie Cade Povich makes his third big league start, followed by lefty Cole Irvin.

The Yankees start Nestor Cortes on Tuesday and breakout star Luis Gil on Thursday. As for Wednesday, that's now set for Cole's return, which will add even more buzz to a series that already had plenty.

“Looking forward to it, another great ballclub,” Judge said. “Excited to see them in the Bronx. It’s going to be a fun series. The fans are going to be excited. We’re looking forward to it."

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb

Noah Trister, The Associated Press