The Yankees' DJ LeMahieu, Brett Gardner and Tyler Wade look on...

The Yankees' DJ LeMahieu, Brett Gardner and Tyler Wade look on from the dugout during the eighth inning against the Rays in an MLB game at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It’s not the worst possible scenario, because the Yankees will be playing baseball beyond Sunday’s Game 162, one way or another.

We’re just not really sure how much they want to at this point.

Needing one victory this final weekend to clinch a wild-card berth, the Yankees didn’t show up for most of Friday night’s loss to the Rays and then were annihilated Saturday by the AL East champs, 12-2, while being showered with boos by a ticked-off crowd of 41,648 at the Stadium.

There’s really no excuse to be non-competitive with a playoff spot on the line, and Brandon Lowe essentially beat the Yankees by himself with a homer hat trick — a pair of three-run shots off Jordan Montgomery followed by a solo blast against Michael King.

Montgomery picked a bad time to serve up career highs in earned runs (seven) and homers (three), cramming all of that ugliness into 2 2/3 innings. From there, the rest of the afternoon was reduced to the Rays taking batting practice as they finished with 19 hits and improved to 11-7 against the Yankees this season (24-12 in the last 36 games between the two)

"They put a lot of good swings on everyone that pitched today," Montgomery said. "I think they just came ready to play."

And what does that say about the Yankees? The Rays arrived in New York with zero at stake as far as playoff positioning and still have humiliated their big-market buddies in pushing them to the brink of a potential Monday tiebreaker (the Blue Jays’ 10-1 win over the Orioles ruined a back-door clinch later Saturday).

The Yankees brought a two-game lead over Boston and Seattle and a three-game lead over Toronto into the weekend and promptly squandered it. Now the Red Sox and Yankees are tied for the wild-card lead and the Blue Jays and Mariners are a game behind entering the final day of the regular season — which might become the next-to-last day of the regular season.

This weekend should have been a glorified three-game exhibition for Tampa Bay, but manager Kevin Cash & Co. couldn’t be more thrilled to keep the "integrity" of the playoff race intact at the expense of the Yankees.

"We got embarrassed today," Brett Gardner said. "We’re playing a really good team and we got beat in all facets."

After Montgomery’s exit, Aaron Boone’s only strategy left was arm preservation, and he still deployed King among the mop-up candidates with the game quickly spiraling out of reach. Boone’s bullpen management has been puzzling the past few days, but the Yankees should have plenty of bullets left for Sunday’s finale — even though starting Jameson Taillon is a curious choice.

Taillon had to leave Tuesday’s game in the third inning after aggravating the partially torn tendon in his right ankle — he threw only 38 pitches — so the Yankees can’t expect more than an opener-type effort from him, if the leg holds up that long. And going this route suggests they were not at all considering Gerrit Cole on short rest, which is the right call.

After leaving his Sept. 7 start with a tight hamstring, Cole has a 6.35 ERA and opponents have raked him at a .304 clip — 28 hits in 22 2/3 innings — in those four starts. Even on his regular turn, Cole doesn’t instill the usual confidence these days, so pushing him to face the Rays felt like a move that could backfire.

Then again, nothing the Yankees do seems to work against the Rays, who are sending out Michael Wacha for the season-ender. Of course, the retread Wacha has a 2.16 ERA in four games against the Yankees this season, but it jumps to 5.77 against everyone else.

If Boone & Co. have taught us anything this year, it’s to expect the unexpected, so this chaotic situation is completely on brand for the 2021 Yankees. From week to week, they can look like an entirely different team, from great to terrible and back again.

Based on that pattern, we should have anticipated this. They were coming off an impressive 5-1 trip through Boston and Toronto that all but iced one of the wild cards. Having the Rays waiting on the final weekend, however, was a diabolical wrinkle in the schedule.

"It’s not ideal," Gardner said. "But it’s nice knowing that we do still have a chance. With the way this season has gone, it kind of makes sense that it would come down to the very last day. That seems about right. In a way, we still can control our own destiny moving forward. And obviously, if we play the way we played today, we’re not going to have a whole lot of baseball left. We’ve just got to be better."

Saturday’s rout was the second time this season the Yankees had surrendered a dozen runs. You’d never guess who did it to them on July 29, when they were blown out 14-0 (hint: rhymes with haze). So even if the Yankees do survive a tiebreaker (if necessary) and win the wild-card game, their reward will be a Division Series matchup with these same devilish Rays.

"We’ve been down this road before, where we’ve taken it on the chin," Boone said. "There won’t be any flinch."

One thing’s for sure. They can’t afford to be a punching bag for the Rays any longer.


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