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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Low-budget Rays measure up just fine against Yankees

Elliot Johnson #9 of the Tampa Bay Rays

Elliot Johnson #9 of the Tampa Bay Rays scores a second inning run ahead of the tag from Chris Stewart #19 of the New York Yankees. (May 10, 2012) Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Yankees' intimidation factor is real, says Joe Maddon. It just doesn't apply to the Rays any longer.

To borrow a Rex Ryan favorite, the other AL East teams are not showing up this season to kiss Derek Jeter's rings and concede the division. Not like previous years, when the Yankees seemingly could beat opponents before throwing a pitch.

"It's no different from watching a good college team take infield," Maddon said Thursday. "I've seen a college team have a good round of infield while the other team is in the dugout, and by the time they come on the field, the game's over -- just by what they see. It happens."

Good thing the Yankees rarely take infield, because if they did on nights with Eduardo Nuñez at third base, the effect would be the exact opposite of what Maddon described. The defensively challenged Nuñez tried his best to sabotage CC Sabathia's efforts -- his two errors in the first two innings set up two unearned runs -- but the Yankees erased his mistakes.

That's the luxury of having baseball's most expensive payroll. If one $25-million player doesn't get the job done, there's another to pick him up. That's the business side of winning, and business usually is good in the Bronx, as it was again with the Yankees' 5-3 win over the Rays Thursday night.

They turned to Sabathia, who outdueled David Price to beat his nemesis for the first time in six tries. Robinson Cano, who went 3-for-4, delivered his second home run in four games, and Curtis Granderson also went deep for his 11th homer. If Cano is indeed heating up, the Yankees won't be middle of the pack for much longer. "We can do a lot better," he said. "We have to start picking it up and not leave the offense to only two guys."

The Rays, however, aren't interested in beating the big spenders at their own game. With a payroll just under $65 million, Maddon's crew (20-12) is tied with the Orioles for the AL East lead, thanks to a stellar rotation, a stingy bullpen and an Evan Longoria-less lineup that scrapes up only as many runs as they absolutely, positively need.

Maddon deployed Jeff Keppinger as his DH and cleanup hitter again. The Yankees, as usual, had Alex Rodriguez for those roles. Comparing the two lineups, top to bottom, is almost comical. And yet, in their previous nine games, the Rays had averaged 6.44 runs against the Yankees while batting .291/.400/.534. That definitely looks like a team unfazed by the Yankees' mystique, aura or whatever else it's been called.

"They're a good baseball team -- that's the bottom line," Joe Girardi said. "And they keep games close because of their pitching. I think sometimes people equate payroll with talent, but that is a very talented club over there."

Maddon actually called the Rays and Yankees "two evenly matched teams" despite the wide gulf in payroll and number of future Hall of Famers. One possible tipping point, however, is the loss of Mariano Rivera.

The Rays have won four games when trailing after eight innings and have outscored opponents 23-8 in the ninth. It's reflective of a never-say-die mentality money can't buy. "That's the game we play," Maddon said. "We played that a game a lot already this year. It just reinforces and reaffirms. We've established that kind of culture for the last several years, so our guys respond to that very well."

The Yankees probably won't linger in the Rays' rearview mirror. The return of Andy Pettitte should help their rotation. But for now, the Yankees find themselves in an unfamiliar role -- playing catch-up. "I think it was just a matter of time," Granderson said, "before we got things rolling as a team. We're right where we want to be, I think."

Not yet. But the Yankees still have plenty of time to convince everyone else they will be by the end of the season.


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