ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Yankees needed this one on many levels.
There was the scary story that dominated the hours before Tuesday night’s game against the Rays – third base coach Phil Nevin testing positive for COVID-19, with the Yankees, most of whom are fully vaccinated, Nevin included, waiting late into the night on results for other members of the staff to see if a slew of additional positive tests on the staff were in the offing.
Then there were the Rays themselves, 5-1 against the Yankees this season and winners in 15 of the last 18 regular-season meetings between the clubs.
"Oh, yeah," Giancarlo Stanton said over the weekend, asked about the importance of this series. "We need to go in there and play good baseball and go get a series down in Tampa. It hasn’t been in our favor against them lately. So yeah, we need to change that."
For at least a few hours Tuesday night, Jordan Montgomery successfully changed the subject on the first topic.
On the second he was almost entirely responsible that the Yankees, for one night, changed the narrative.
Featuring a changeup that has never been better since he’s been in the big leagues, Montgomery matched a career-high with nine strikeouts over six dominant innings of a 3-1 victory in front of 5,441 at Tropicana Field.
"It’s been a long 24, 36 hours, whatever," Aaron Boone said afterward. "I thought the focus of the guys was really good going into the game."
The Yankees after the game said a "support staff" member was also a confirmed positive as well as first base coach Reggie Willits.
Though more positive tests among the coaching/support staff can’t be ruled out, Boone said "absolutely" the Yankees are planning to play Wednesday night.
Tuesday night’s victory gave the Yankees (19-16), who got homers from Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, their 13th win in their last 18 games. The Rays, average it seems against everyone but the Yankees this season, are 19-18.
"One of the more interesting days we’ve had this year," said Aaron Judge, whose first-inning homer, his eighth, made it 1-0. "It was stressful, but it’s all part of itt. You’re going to have day like this where things might pop up. Still have a game to play. We went out there and took care of business."
No one more so than Montgomery, who did not enter the night with the kind of numbers portending the kind of game he pitched – 1-1 with a 4.41 ERA. But the lefthander was electric, allowing one run – it coming on Mike Zunino's homer – two hits and a walk to go with the nine strikeouts.
"His changeup very good tonight," said Sanchez, whose seventh-inning homer, his fourth, off lefty Josh Fleming made it 3-1. "So good we were able to use it to righties and lefties. But all of his pitches [were working]."
Jonathan Loaisiga pitched scoreless seventh and eighth innings, setting up Aroldis Chapman, who moved to 8-for-8 in save chances, having not allowed a run in 14 games. He was aided by Sanchez throwing out Austin Meadows, who reached on an infield single to start the inning, trying to advance to second on a wild pitch that ricocheted off the backstop.
Montgomery, who retired the final eight he faced, had six strikeouts through three innings.
Luis Patino, the 21-year-old Rays righty making his fourth appearance of the season, and second start, allowed two runs [one earned] and three hits over four innings.
"Really executed my changeup a lot tonight," Montgomery said. "I felt really good tonight."
On a night the Yankees certainly needed it.