Before the Yankees even arrived Friday at Tropicana Field, to cram in four games this weekend under the despised inflatable dome, the “money” quote from the Rays’ Blake Snell summed up all anyone needed to know about the state of this AL East rivalry.
“It’s an extremely hard team to beat,” Snell said of the Yankees, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “With our talent, when we do that, I would definitely say it feels a lot better because we know they have the money to get the best guys in the world.”
As backhanded compliments go, on the scale of 1 to 10, that was an 11. Snell was basically saying the Yankees are good because they’re richer than everyone else. As for the small-market Rays, they wear penny-pinching efficiency like a badge of honor. No fans, no problem. The Rays played in front of Coronaball crowds long before the pandemic was a thing.
Also, it doesn’t cost a dime to get under the Yankees’ skin, and the Rays do whatever they can to poke their big brother visiting from New York. On Saturday, it was chin-music fastballs to Gio Urshela and DJ LeMahieu that led to the ejections of manager Aaron Boone and hitting coach Marcus Thames.
In Sunday’s series finale, the chirping came from the Rays’ dugout, where a fuming James Paxton stared — head turned sideways — as he left the mound in the seventh inning. Paxton had been cruising, with 11 Ks through six, before back-to-back homers by Mike Brosseau and Brandon Lowe tied the score at 3, abruptly ending his previously brilliant afternoon.
From there, the Rays beat the Yankees at their own game, as the bullpen retired six straight and Michael Perez — in his first at-bat after entering as a defensive replacement — delivered the 4-3 victory with a walk-off single against Zack Britton.
The Rays’ ninth-inning rally was just solid, scrappy baseball. A Tampa Bay trademark. But the takeaways from the Yankees’ 1-3 weekend at the Trop, where they now have lost seven of eight, mostly involved the psychological warfare.
Paxton’s glaring daggers at the Rays’ bench wasn’t on the same level as CC Sabathia’s revenge-drilling of Jesus Sucre back in 2018, or his continued jawing with them a year ago, but the Yankees’ lefty wasn’t thinking happy thoughts upon his exit. He declined to elaborate on what was said.
“Uh, I’m not sure,” Paxton said. “I didn’t hear anything specific. I just heard some jawing back and forth. You know, whatever. It’s competition. Guys are fired up. It is what it is.”
Boone also didn’t feel much like re-engaging with the Rays after Saturday night’s brushback imbroglio. After a while, the manager must realize it’s a pointless exercise. And there’s little value in letting the Rays think their irritating strategy could be working to some extent.
“I don’t know — intense series,” Boone said. “Quiet stadiums, there’s back and forth all the time.”
With the Rays, however, it always seems at another level. The rivalry with the Red Sox is different, especially now that the Curse of the Bambino has been obliterated, four times over in the past 16 seasons. There’s more of a mutual respect among two big-market warriors. The Rays seemingly thrive on being a pest. And it’s an attitude that works against the Yankees.
After Aaron Judge spelled out the history between these teams Saturday night, saying how they haven’t forgotten the Rays throwing at Austin Romine’s head two years ago, manager Kevin Cash was unapologetic when asked about it the next morning.
“The only thing we’re mindful of is, we’re trying to compete and go out and win — I think it’s best to leave it at that,” Cash said. “Everything that we’re doing, we’re trying to get a really good lineup out. I can respect their thoughts and I think it’s just we’ve got to continue playing games and finding ways to win.”
Some of those ways, like buzzing the Yankees inside, weren’t on display Sunday. Rays starter Charlie Morton played it straight before his premature departure in the third inning due to shoulder inflammation, but the bullpen pretty much locked down the Yankees, who scored two gift runs when centerfielder Manuel Margot dropped Urshela’s two-out fly ball at the warning track in the fifth inning.
Even on a day when the Rays were feeling charitable, it still wound up another Tropicana L for the Yankees. And another head-scratcher.
“I think they always play up to or above their potential,” Brett Gardner said. “Coming down here, we know ahead of time that it’s going to be a battle.”
For the Rays, it always seems to carry the additional weight of validation, as Snell suggested. And how much fun it can be sending the Yankees home to the Bronx after a lost weekend like this one.