There were few positives for James Paxton to take from his first two 2020 starts, and he didn’t pretend there had been.
The lefthander even copped to being “concerned” about his diminished fastball velocity after an unimpressive three-inning outing last Sunday night against the Red Sox.
Seven days later, Paxton produced an outing that gave little cause for concern, but a bitter aftertaste remained.
Bitter because Paxton pitched far better than his final line, and especially bitter because the few mistakes he made proved costly in a 4-3 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field.
Entering the seventh inning, Paxton had allowed one hit and one walk with 11 strikeouts and the Yankees held a three-run lead. Then, in a span of eight pitches, he allowed a double, a two-run homer and a solo shot that tied the score and brought out Aaron Boone to replace him.
The Rays won it on Michael Perez’s walk-off single off Zack Britton with two outs in the ninth and inched within two games of the Yankees (10-6), who have lost five of seven after a seven-game winning streak brought them to 8-1.
“It definitely stings,” said Boone, whose team squandered a bevy of scoring chances, going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and leaving nine men on base.
Mike Brosseau, who had hit a two-run homer to bring the Rays within 3-2 in the seventh, led off the ninth with a double off Britton. Gleyber Torres cut down Brosseau at third on Brandon Lowe’s grounder to short, but Lowe reached second on a wild pitch. Manuel Margot walked and Willy Adames' groundout put runners on second and third, setting up Perez’s sharp single to right.
“Just wasn’t very sharp with really anything from the get-go,” Britton said. “I didn’t execute many pitches today.”
Tampa Bay appeared to take a 4-3 lead in the eighth against Jonathan Holder when Hunter Renfroe was ruled safe at first on a potential inning-ending 5-4-3 double-play ball, but the Yankees successfully challenged the call, taking the run off the board.
Still, the story of the day was Paxton, who came in with a 13.50 ERA in two outings and an average fastball velocity in the low 90s, 4 to 5 mph less than usual.
Paxton, his velocity up a tick, entered the seventh throwing as well as any Yankees pitcher has in some time. Then it stunningly came apart.
Jose Martinez led off with a double and, one out later, Brosseau crushed a belt-high 0-and-2 fastball to left for a two-run homer. Lowe then ripped a 0-and-1 cutter to right to tie it at 3-3.
“It’s a tough one,” Paxton said. “It was going really well, and the seventh inning rolled around, I made a few bad pitches and they made me pay, which is too bad. It is a great step in a good direction for me, I pitched a lot better today. Ending wasn’t what we wanted. That last inning was unfortunate.”
Rays starter Charlie Morton left the game because of shoulder inflammation after walking Aaron Hicks to start the third inning.
The Yankees scored a run in the first when Mike Ford was hit by a pitch with two outs and the bases loaded. With runners on second and third in the fifth, Ford popped to second for the second out but Margot dropped Gio Urshela's long fly to center for a three-base error that made it 3-0.
“You know when you come here and play these guys, runs are going to be at a premium,” Boone said. “They have a lot of quality arms, they match up really well, so they make it difficult.”