ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — J.A. Happ’s bullpen audition for a postseason role on Wednesday night went just fine, as CC Sabathia’s did the night before.
The Yankees’ offense?
That was another matter, never getting off the ground a second straight night, leading to a 4-0 loss to the Rays in front of 20,390 at Tropicana Field.
The loss makes it all but certain the Yankees (102-57), who have lost five of their last nine, will have the second seed in the American League playoffs and a date with the Twins in the ALDS, which is not necessarily a bad thing given the history between the franchises.
The Yankees are now 2 1/2 games behind the Astros for the best record in the majors — a deficit that really is 3 1/2 games as Houston (104-54) defeated Seattle, 3-0, later Wednesday night, and won the season series.
Tuesday night, nine Rays pitchers held the Yankees in check in a 2-1 loss in 12 innings. Five pitchers, led by Charlie Morton, did the trick Wednesday night as the Yankees finished with one hit.
“Overall a weird couple of days for us offensively,” DJ LeMahieu said of an offense that struck out a combined 29 times (16 Wednesday) in the series and held to a combined eight hits. “They’re playing really good baseball right now.”
Morton, 15-6 with a 3.15 ERA entering the night — but just 5-4 with a 4.38 ERA in 13 starts since the All-Star break — had a no-hitter before LeMahieu’s single to right with two outs in the sixth. Morton allowed that one hit over six scoreless innings in which he walked three and struck out nine, keeping the Rays (95-64) very much alive in their battle with Cleveland and Oakland for the AL’s two wild-card spots. The winner of the wild-card game will play the No. 1 seed, likely Houston, and if it’s the Rays, the Yankees will be more than happy to avoid them – and their coterie of quality arms – in the Division Series.
“This is what they’re capable of, this is a big reason why they’re in this position and fighting for a playoff spot,” Aaron Boone said.
In a bright spot, the 36-year-old Happ, making the 26th relief appearance of his 13-year career and first since July 27, 2015, when he was with the Mariners, allowed one run and four hits over five innings. After he allowed the first two batters to reach in the second, Happ struck out three straight and didn’t allow his run until the sixth, on Matt Duffy’s RBI double that made it 3-0. Avisail Garcia hit his 20th home run, a solo shot, off Luis Cessa in the eighth to account for the final score.
“I felt pretty normal going out there,” Happ said.
Of pitching out of the bullpen in the postseason, Happ said: “I don’t think anything’s set in stone, but for the rest of the way and the playoffs, I’m (of the mindset), whatever’s going to help us, anything I can do to help us win. A whatever-it-takes mentality I think.”
Happ took the mound with the Yankees in a 2-0 hole.
Jonathan Loaisiga, in the mix for a postseason bullpen spot as the likelihood is the Yankees will go with 13 pitchers on the 25-man roster, did not help his chances as much as in his previous outing last Saturday when he allowed a solo homer but was otherwise electric in two innings, striking out five. Wednesday he allowed two runs and four hits, including a leadoff homer to Joey Wendle, serving as the opener, a role that would have been filled by Chad Green had he not been needed the night before.
Regardless, the night mostly was about Morton and the other Rays pitchers giving the Yankees few chances. The Bombers were 0-for-3 with RISP and stranded five.
“They can really pitch, and their run prevention is really good,” Boone said. “If you’re not really on top of your game up and down the lineup, they can have nights like this.”