The unlikely lead characters in Yankees-Rays first-place drama

The Yankees knew the Rays would be good, perhaps not this good.

Part II of the surprise matchup for first place in the AL East, beginning Friday at the Trop in St. Petersburg, Fla., is that the Yankees never thought they would be taking these pinstriped players to battle the Rays.

Sure, it’s not the Red Sox, but this rivalry will do for now.

The bargain-basement but super-talented Rays against the Accidental Yankees will be the biggest series of the season so far in 2019.

Fittingly, during Thursday night’s batting practice, the Yankees blared Thrift Shop from the Stadium speakers. This will be the thrifty Rays versus the backup Yankees.

“They’re really good, we knew that last year,’’ manager Aaron Boone said before the Yankees beat the Mariners to take three games out of the four-game series. “They’re a tough team to play against. Really good at preventing runs. They have a lot of versatility and a lot of parts within their pitching staff, obviously a few dynamic starters as well.’’

The Rays sure do — their 2.87 team ERA is by far the best in the game. The Yankees will have Domingo German go up against Tyler Glasnow, who is 6-0 and sports a 1.47 ERA, on Friday. When the Yankees were in San Francisco two weeks ago, many of the players were glued to the flat screens in the clubhouse before their game against the Giants, marveling at Glasnow’s supernatural sliders.

The Yankees will see the Rays’ other ace in this series, AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell, who will face the slumping Masahiro Tanaka on Sunday.

“It’s a club that can mix and match in a lot of different ways, depending on the matchup, guys that can play multiple positions as well as having a couple of really impact players,’’ Boone said. “They have made a lot of smart moves over the years to put themselves in a position to be as legit as they are.’’

That is some high praise, but certainly deserved for the Rays, who have the lowest payroll in baseball at $64.5 million.

It is only May, but this is a big series. The next time these teams meet in St. Petersburg –on July 4 — the Yankees will be a different team. Aaron Hicks (back) took batting practice at the Stadium on Thursday and will go to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre over the weekend and should return to the Yankees next week against the Orioles.

Aaron Judge (oblique) is not close to returning, but Giancarlo Stanton (shoulder) is making some progress.

Yes, this is a much different lineup the Yankees will have at the Trop than what they expected back in spring training.

“I really don’t look at it necessarily as a measuring stick,’’ Boone said, “I look at it as an important game against a division rival that is a really good team. I look at it as we have to go and put our best foot forward and play well. That’s the focus, and hopefully we get out of there doing well. But I don’t see it as where we stack up at this point or anything like that. We are trying to rack up as many wins as we can, we are trying to play as well as we can, and that’s kind of the hyper-focus that we go into each day with.’’

That’s because these are the Accidental Yankees. Third baseman Gio Urshela (knee bruise) is expected to be back at third base Friday.

“Our guys have done really well,’’ Boone said. “We have shown that we’re very capable of beating any team out there, despite being a little bit depleted, despite having some adversity and some of our big guns down, our expectation is we are going to win games. The way we play maybe changes a little bit on our personnel but the expectation doesn’t.’’

These large payroll ($211.5 million) Yankees play more small-ball.

“The guys have been doing great, a little different than we normally play,’’ Hicks said of the backups.

They will be tested this weekend against the well-run, resourceful, pitching-rich Rays. It’s not the World Series champion Red Sox, but the Yankees will be facing a most sturdy division opponent.

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