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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Rays and Astros in ALCS: Root of all evils for Yankees

Houston Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel, center left,

Houston Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel, center left, jokes with second baseman Jose Altuve during practice before the baseball American League Championship Series Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, in San Diego. Credit: AP/Gregory Bull

Rays or Astros. Easy pick in this ALCS, right?

Like choosing between summer or winter, ice cream or green beans, happy hour or root canal.

In a matchup with baseball’s most reviled cheaters, everyone outside Houston loves Tampa Bay.

But what about Yankees fans? After Friday’s cringe-worthy ouster from the Division Series and the Rays’ relentless troll job afterward, we’d understand if Bronx loyalists aren’t quite ready to embrace the AL East champs as America’s Team.

Maybe later in the week, those bitter feelings will fade and hate-watching the Astros will fill the void left by the Yankees’ playoff exit. But the Rays’ exuberance this season in tweaking their Bronx foes at every opportunity has added another level of annoyance to this rivalry. To the point that seeing them humbled a bit — even at the hands of the unrepentant, barrel-banging Astros — wouldn’t be the worst thing in the eyes of the Yankees’ faithful.

Kudos to the Rays’ Mike Brosseau for getting his revenge by hitting that series-winning homer off Aroldis Chapman on Friday night. Brosseau’s epic 10-pitch at-bat, capped by turning on a 100-mph fastball, was the ultimate way to stick it to the Yankees’ closer, who gunned the same heater at his head in September.

Chapman’s intimidation tactics crossed the line. But despite the mutual dislike, these two warring teams didn’t allow their tempers to boil over during the Division Series, and Brosseau coldly settled all family business, Corleone-style, by truly hurting Chapman in the most painful fashion.

"It goes down as the greatest moment I’ve been a part of in baseball," Rays manager Kevin Cash said, "for how we got there, that matchup, it’s pretty special."

That’s all good, at least for the Rays. But they not only celebrated the Yankees' misfortune after their Game 5 elimination, they took particular delight in making things personal. The on-field soundtrack was Sinatra’s "New York, New York" and Jay-Z’s "Empire State of the Mind" for the cigar-smoking, confetti-shooting festivities.

Considering no one has been inspired to write any songs about Tampa Bay, maybe that’s all the Rays had loaded up in their clubhouse laptop. But they certainly appeared to be big fans, and Gerrit Cole tormentor and former Yankee Ji-Man Choi was having a blast in an IG video of him puffing on a stogie with Jay-Z cranking in the background at Petco Park. Choi also kicked over a recycling bin, sending trash flying, before stomping on the blue container, a not-so-subtle dis of the Rays’ next opponent, the Astros.

There was an awkward moment during the Yankees’ postgame Zoom calls when Sinatra suddenly leaked through — maybe before a door was closed — but they otherwise claimed to pay little attention to the Rays’ New York-themed partying.

"It’s their celebration," Cole said.

In 2018, after a win during the Division Series, Aaron Judge raised eyebrows by blasting "New York, New York" on a personal speaker as the Yankees walked through the Fenway concourse en route to the team bus. That backfired on the Yankees, however, as they were later eliminated by the Red Sox in the Bronx.

Judge’s DJ move was questionable, optics-wise, mid-series. But we’re with Cole on the Rays’ musical stylings. The losers don’t get to make the rules. The Yankees can be ticked off about it, though, even if they refused to sound off in the aftermath of Game 5.

"Every time the season's over, it’s tough," Judge said. "It doesn't matter who it is — previous years with Houston, Boston, Tampa. It's another chapter. We’ve got to continue to move on, continue to get better. There’s a lot of things you need to work on and improve on to make sure it doesn't happen again."

The Rays got plenty of mileage from their hatred of the Yankees this season. It was an infinitely renewable resource. After Chapman used Brosseau for target practice, Cash threatened the Yankees with his "whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 miles an hour." The manager’s comment spawned a clubhouse "stable" T-shirt as well as 98er caps some wore after the division clincher at Citi Field.

Cash turned to three members of that stable to close out the Yankees in Game 5 — "The horses were running," reliever Pete Fairbanks said — then turned up the volume on Jay-Z. Fairbanks also made sure to mention that the Rays bounced ESPN’s "golden child," alluding to the lack of respect for the small-market club, among the many chips on Tampa Bay’s collective shoulder.

The Rays’ little-brother bravado only irritates the Bronx, though. Public Enemy No. 1 remains the Astros, the scripted villain for this ALCS. But we can’t blame those in the Yankees’ universe who may have trouble letting go of this grudge — at least for a few more days.

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