To understand how the Yankees and Rays really feel about each other, don’t read or listen to the comments emanating from the Yankees — at least to this point — in advance of the teams’ Division Series matchup that starts Monday night in San Diego.
"We want to win and advance, and that's where our focus is going to lie," Aaron Boone said Thursday. "We don't want to get caught up in the back-and-forth. There's going to be things that come up that probably will become a little bit contentious within the series, but I'm confident that our guys will do a good job of keeping their blinders on. We understand what's at stake."
No, to truly get a sense of the clubs’ feelings — enmity isn’t too strong a word for what has steadily built up in recent seasons — you can start, and end, with the comments of Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier on Friday.
"With all the history that we’ve had the last couple years . . . I've said it many times: They don't like us, we don't like them," Kiermaier said via Zoom. "It's going to continue to stay that way."
The history goes back a number of years. One could even trace it back as far as spring training in 2008, when Tampa Bay’s Elliot Johnson plowed into Francisco Cervelli during a spring training game and broke the catcher’s right wrist.
But there’s enough to unpack just from this season alone, one in which the Rays outscored the Yankees 47-34 in winning eight of 10 tension-filled meetings. That tension produced the comments made by Rays manager Kevin Cash that wound up on a T-shirt meant as a taunt to the Yankees: "I’ve got a w hole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 miles an hour."
Cash's angry comment stemmed from a 5-3 Yankees victory Sept. 1 in which Aroldis Chapman threw a 101-mph fastball near the head of Mike Brosseau. That sequence was taken by many as a response to the second game of an Aug. 8 doubleheader in St. Petersburg, Florida, in which Boone and hitting coach Marcus Thames were ejected by plate umpire Vic Carapazza after the pair objected to three up-and-in pitches by Rays pitchers during at-bats by DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela.
Cash's comment was viewed as a threat, but nothing of note happened a day later in a 5-2 Rays victory that both managers, suspended one game each for the events of the night before, sat out.
Cash’s "stable" comment quickly became a logo that ended up being a popular T-shirt among players and staff for the pitching-rich Rays.
Still, with the clubs having not seen each other since Sept. 2, it remains to be seen how much carryover there will be in a series that will determine which team goes to the ALCS.
"To be honest, what happened obviously happened, and I'm not going to say we forgot about that because we haven't," Kiermaier said. "Just another chip on your shoulder [and makes] it that much sweeter to try to beat those guys. And when you do, it feels that much better.
"But we're very happy with how things went throughout the regular season, especially that last game after the game before with the whole Brosseau thing and whatnot. We expected our guys to respond that game, and we did. And we've done that all season. But from here on moving forward, we're going to try to play our best baseball, good, clean Rays baseball."
In an oddity resulting from COVID-19 protocols in place for the postseason, the teams will be staying in the same hotel, which is located about 45 minutes outside of San Diego.
"We just did it with the Blue Jays; we were at the Vinoy," Cash said of the Rays’ first-round opponent and the local hotel in St. Petersburg where the teams were sequestered. "We were on one side, they were on the other side, but certainly [you’re] going to cross paths. We're a fairly good distance from San Diego, like a 45-minute to an hour drive, and I know we're excited to get out there."