ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Luis Cessa, as much distrust as he engenders among Yankees’ fans, wasn’t the problem.
Nor was the fact new addition Zach Britton, acquired late Tuesday night, wasn’t at Tropicana Field Wednesday afternoon (he will join the Yankees Thursday).
No, it was an afternoon of mostly swinging dead wood that led to the Yankees’ 3-2 loss to the Rays in front of 27,372 at Tropicana Field.
The Yankees (64-36), who dropped two of three here and are 14-14 in their last 28 games, fell 5 ½ games behind the Red Sox, who were rained out in Baltimore Wednesday night. They did not homer in the series and have hit only one long ball in five games since returning from the All-Star break.
“We just have to play better baseball,” Brett Gardner said. “We can’t worry about what other teams are doing, especially when we’re not playing them. We have a lot of baseball left. I feel confident the best is yet to come and we can be better than we’ve been, and I expect us to be. Including myself.”
Gardner struck out with runners at first and second against righthander Sergio Romo to end the sometimes bizarre day. The Rays (52-50), who traded their scheduled starter Nathan Eovaldi to Boston late Wednesday morning, threw another “bullpen game” at the Yankees, who finished with seven hits against a total of six pitchers.
That included Romo twice.
Romo came on in the eighth and retired two batters — including Giancarlo Stanton on a sacrifice fly that made it 3-2 — then started the ninth at third base as Rays manager Kevin Cash had lefty Jonny Venters face the lefty-hitting Greg Bird. Bird grounded to second and Romo returned to the mound, becoming the first pitcher to appear defensively at another position against the Yankees since Adam Loewen on Sept. 17, 2011, at Toronto.
Miguel Andujar greeted Romo in his return appearance with an infield single. Switch-hitting Aaron Hicks grounded to second but the relay throw was dropped at second base by third baseman Matt Duffy, who was covering, for an error. Austin Romine pinch hit for Kyle Higashioka and fouled out (first baseman Jake Bauers made a nice sliding catch near the first row of seats).
Gardner then struck out on a full-count sinker off the plate to end it.
“It’s obviously a different style than what you’re normally accustomed to seeing,” Aaron Boone said of the bullpen strategy the Rays have employed throughout the season, including several times against the Yankees. “But our guys are prepared and game-planned up. It’s something that they leverage to kind of work in their favor because it is a little different, but you also have to have the ability to adjust to it.”
The offense did not, managing just a Neil Walker sacrifice fly in the second, which scored Gleyber Torres, who returned from the DL, before the Stanton sacrifice fly.
Cessa, who threw six scoreless innings in his previous start July 9 at Baltimore, took that 1-0 lead into the sixth inning. Cessa had allowed just two hits entering the inning, and had retired 11 straight, but gave up a leadoff single to Adam Moore and a two-run homer to Kevin Kiermaier. C.J. Cron’s homer later in the inning off Jonathan Holder, who had not allowed a homer since April 6, made it 3-1.
“One pitch is the difference today,” Cessa said of the changeup Kiermaier hit out.
Still, he wasn’t the primary factor in the loss, which dropped the Yankees to 6-6 against the Rays this season. That, coupled with a 5-5 mark against Baltimore is the biggest culprit in their East deficit. (Entering Wednesday, the Red Sox were 9-4 and 10-2, respectively, against those clubs.)
“I feel like we’re close to breaking out,” said Boone, whose team starts a four-game series against the Royals at home Thursday night. “Hopefully [we’re] ready to start on another good run.”