Not that it needs to be cleared up but here it is anyway:
No, the Rays have not and will not take the place of the Red Sox as the Yankees’ main rival.
And that’s not the case even in 2020 when the Red Sox appear to be historically bad and the Rays, seemingly, are the only obstacle between the Yankees and a second straight AL East crown.
That said, there has been a consistent intensity to games between the Yankees and Rays in recent years that has been at times on par with — or even more so than — some against the Red Sox. And it occasionally has manifested itself in balls getting thrown behind — or at — players, retaliatory strikes from the opposition, a bench-clearing incident or two, expletives shouted at the opposing dugout, etc.
Some of that was on display Aug. 7-9 in St. Petersburg, Fla. when the Rays took three of four from the Yankees, a series that featured a steady streak of verbal jousts from dugout to dugout.
The teams kicked off a three-game series Tuesday night at the Stadium, with the Yankees (16-6), winners of six straight coming in, leading the Rays (14-9) by 2 ½ games. The series promises to be at least as impassioned as the first one.
“They’ve always got a good team for one," Brett Gardner, the longest-tenured Yankee, said after that first series. “I’ve been here a long time and as long as I can remember, they’ve always played us tough. Especially down here at the Trop."
In the second game of the Aug. 8 doubleheader, Aaron Boone and hitting coach Marcus Thames were ejected by plate umpire Vic Carapazza after the pair loudly objected to three up-and-in pitches by Rays pitchers during at-bats by DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela. It was reminiscent — and Yankees players said as much — of a September 2018 games at the Rays when righty Andrew Kittredge threw one behind then-backup catcher Austin Romine’s head. CC Sabathia hit the Rays' Jesus Sucre in retaliation, was immediately ejected and could be seen screaming, “That’s for you, [expletive]” as he defiantly left the field, glaring into the Rays dugout the entire way.
“They threw the ball under his chin,” Sabathia said of Romine that afternoon. “That’s never a good spot to throw at somebody. I think we all took exception to that.”
After the Aug. 8 game, Aaron Judge brought up the Kittredge pitch.
"You don’t usually forget stuff like that," Judge said. "And for them to continue to throw up and in, that’s tough. We’ve got a lot of big hitters up there and we know they’re going to throw in, but to miss that far up and in that many times, you’re going to hear barking from the dugout."
Rays' second baseman Brandon Lowe — who would hit a big game-tying homer off James Paxton the next day — called the Yankees “a little childish” in response.
"They’ve been chirping the whole weekend and we chirped at them once and they got upset about it,” Lowe told reporters via Zoom. “That was really the whole thing of it was, they’ve kind of been loud about everything and we did it back and they didn’t like it."
It wasn’t over as the next day, a come-from-behind Rays' victory, Paxton stared intently at the Rays dugout after allowing back-to-back homers in the seventh that flushed what had been a brilliant outing.
"They’re a good team, a talented team," Paxton said that day, declining to elaborate. “We’re going to be battling it out with them all year long. I know it’s a short season, but we’ll see them again and we’ll be fighting it out with them the rest of the way I’m sure."
Boone did not believe there would be any carry-over for this series.
“I think it's, obviously, two very good teams I think that have a lot of respect for the talent on both sides,” Boone said Tuesday afternoon. “The way I put it is, sometimes when you're playing for a lot, and there's two competitive, high-level teams, sometimes occasionally it spills over. But I think the respect for both sides, going both ways, is very high.”