ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — If you can’t beat ’em, bullpen ’em.
The Yankees took a page from the Rays and the A’s on Monday night, choosing an “opener” rather than a traditional starter to face Tampa Bay.
“Hopefully it’s something we can do half as effectively as the Rays,” Aaron Boone said beforehand.
Boone went with righty reliever Jonathan Holder to start the game, the beginning of a phalanx of eight pitchers who shut down the Rays in the Yankees’ 4-1 win in front of 13,832 at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay had only two hits and struck out 13 times.
How much impact did the eight relievers have on Tampa Bay’s offense? Said Rays manager Kevin Cash, “A lot, probably. A lot of good pitchers. I don’t think it’s fair for them to say a ‘bullpen day.’ More like a ‘closer day.’ They all just kind of come in there and have wipe-out stuff.”
Said Boone, “One run, we’ll take that, right? It was a little different . . . The guys just rolled it out. It worked out pretty well tonight. A good all-around effort by obviously a lot of guys on the pitching staff.”
It was a successful start to a seven-game trip to end the regular season. The Yankees (96-60), who remained 1 ½ games ahead of the A’s (95-62) in the battle for the top wild-card spot, lowered their magic number to four to clinch home-field advantage on Oct. 3. Visiting Oakland beat Seattle, 7-3, late Monday night.
Centerfielder Aaron Hicks left the game with a tight left hamstring in the fourth and is set to get an MRI on Tuesday. “It’s just been tight for a couple of days,’’ he said, “and today was the day they kind of took me out of the game. It kind of came out of nowhere. I’ve been doing maintenance on it for a few days now. I’m not too concerned about it. Another day or two and I should be good and ready to go.”
Brett Gardner, who replaced Hicks, drove in a run with a two-out single in the fifth and scored on Giancarlo Stanton’s double to give the Yankees a 3-1 lead. In the sixth, he saved at least two runs with a terrific grab as he ran into the centerfield wall.
The Rays (87-69), who entered the game with 16 wins in their last 21 games, were eliminated from playoff contention.
“There’s no question they started this and have had a lot of success, so teams have followed,” Boone had said of bullpenning a game, something he said is not a consideration for the Yankees for the wild-card game against the A’s. “I think it’s triggered a lot of conversation. Copy-cat league, I guess, as they say.”
After Holder stranded two in a scoreless first, rookie Stephen Tarpley pitched a scoreless second. Sonny Gray gave up one run in two innings, allowing the only two hits the Rays managed in the game, and Chad Green struck out the side in the fifth. David Robertson was the recipient of Gardner’s great catch in the sixth and Aroldis Chapman turned in a scoreless seventh, striking out two. Dellin Betances and Zach Britton finished up.
Betances' streak of consecutive appearances with at least one strikeout was snapped at 44, the longest in American League history and the third-longest in the majors behind Chapman (49) and Corey Knebel (46).
Andrew McCutchen hit his 20th homer in the third, and the Yankees took a 3-1 lead in the fifth. Aaron Judge (two walks, RBI double) walked with two outs and went to second on a passed ball. Gardner muscled a blooper to center for an RBI single and Stanton roped a double to left-center for a 3-1 lead. Doubles by McCutchen and Judge in the seventh made it 4-1.
With runners at the corners and one out in the sixth, Robertson struck out Joey Wendle, but Brandon Lowe tattooed a drive to dead center. Gardner sprinted back, chased the ball down a step in front of the wall, crashed into the wall and crumpled to the ground. A worried Robertson shot both arms skyward like a referee signaling a touchdown, and the Yankees’ dugout erupted.
“Game-saving play,” Robertson said.