It begins, again: The Yankees open up against the Rays, who keep beating the Red Sox

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The Rays. (Keith Allison, via flickr)
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Over the past four seasons, a pair of American League East teams have battled for supremacy. Each team has three playoff appearances in four years, along with one AL pennant apiece. Fittingly, the two will do battle beginning Friday afternoon.

Chances are, you've identified one of these teams as the New York Yankees, and that's correct. The other one is not, however, the Boston Red Sox. The Tampa Bay Rays have been the more successful Yankee rival in recent seasons, and that may well continue this year.

It has now been two years since Boston has even made the playoffs. The Red Sox have hardly fallen on hard times, winning 89 games in 2010 and 90 games in 2011. But their success is indicative of just how good the Rays have been to beat them out for a playoff spot in consecutive seasons.

So why exactly is the hype for this opener less about the nascent rivalry between Tampa and the Yankees so faint? Why is Bobby Valentine, the manager of the Red Sox, going to have a weekly radio spot on ESPN New York 1050, while Joe Maddon, the manager of the Rays, will not?

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Force of habit, maybe. Boston and New York have been going at it for over 100 years. And the Rays didn't even exist until 1998, only finished higher than last place once until they won the American League pennant in 2008, and even now struggle to draw fans to their home park.

But Tampa Bay is every bit the threat to New York's postseason hopes that Boston is, even if the addition of the second wild card this season eliminates much of the drama around a great division with three contending teams.

The Rays throw a quality starting pitcher at opponents every night. James Shields, David Price, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Jeff Niemann is a rotation for anyone in baseball to envy. The bullpen is deep and talented as well. The offense sports young stars like third baseman Evan Longoria and center fielder Desmond Jennings. And Tampa Bay has the best defense in baseball.

So when James Shields throws his first pitch on Friday afternoon, it will do more than signal the start to New York's season, and a countdown to the games that Really Matter, against the Red Sox. It's the beginning of the latest chaper in a real rivalry, whether anyone calls it that or not.