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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees should avoid playing base-brawl with Rays in ALDS

Tyler Wade and Erik Kratz of the Yankees

Tyler Wade and Erik Kratz of the Yankees try to seperate the Rays from the rest of the Yankees after the final out of their game at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 1. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Yankees conquered Cleveland with resilience.

To beat the Rays, they’ll need to show some restraint.

Don’t get sucked into another bench-jockeying, bean-balling series where Tampa Bay thrives by poking the Bronx bear. The Rays may be the AL’s No. 1 seed, the East champs, and a very good baseball team. But they also love playing the small-market card, the annoying little brother, and the motivation again worked well in taking eight of 10 from the Yankees this season.

The Rays feed off this rivalry’s vibe. They admit it. The Yankees just have to avoid taking the bait.

Manager Aaron Boone talked more Thursday about staying on message, and despite being proud of his team for outlasting Cleveland in the Game 2 instant classic, the only mission here is winning a championship. As for the Rays’ giant-slayer mentality when it comes to his club, Boone playfully tried to flip that narrative.

"We're clearly the underdog now," Boone said, smiling. "They are the big bad, No. 1 seed of the AL East. So I don't think it'll be very difficult for our guys to really focus on [the fact] we want to win. We want to win and advance and that's where our focus is going to lie. We don't want to get caught up in the back and forth.

"There's going to be things that come up that probably become a little bit contentious within the series, but I'm confident that our guys will do a good job of keeping their blinders on. We understand what's at stake."

That’s easier to say now, before the chin music starts, and the Rays remain unapologetic when it comes to decking Yankees with neck-high fastballs. Boone and hitting coach Marcus Thames were ejected in August at Tropicana Field for riding the umpires on the matter, but it continued last month in the Bronx, and exploded when Aroldis Chapman retaliated by rifling a 101-mph missile at Mike Brosseau’s skull.

"That's in the past for us," Thames said Thursday. "We just gotta stay focused on what we need to do and don’t let all that little stuff get to you. They're gonna do what they have to do to try to make us uncomfortable. If that's their game plan, good luck to them. I don't think they can pitch in for strikes, so for me, it is what it is. And if we stick with our plan, our approach will be fine."

The Rays’ tactics aren’t changing and manager Kevin Cash had no problem saying so when these teams last met, despite the Chapman escalation that resulted in one-game suspensions for both managers. Boone inexplicably took the hit for his closer, but Cash earned his ban with the overt threat of using the Rays’ rocket-armed bullpen for retaliation.

"Somebody's got to be accountable," Cash said. "And the last thing I'll say on it is, I got a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 miles an hour. Period."

Not only did Cash become a hero in the clubhouse, that quote spawned a series of caps and T-shirts that many of the Rays wore during their playoff-clinching visit to Citi Field last week. The caps read, "Tampa Bay 98ers" while the T-shirt displays four horses in a stable. Harmless fun? Or just another tweak of their Bronx pals on the eve of the postseason? From a New York perspective, we just assume anything the Rays do is a dig at the Yankees based on the bitter history between the two. And those two items were about as subtle as a fastball to the rib cage.

There also is unfinished business from that volatile September series in the Bronx. While Chapman received a three-game suspension for throwing at Brosseau’s head -- MLB considers the closer a repeat offender - it has yet to be served. Chapman appealed the ruling and the hearing was tabled until next year, which could have the Rays seeking some frontier justice next week in San Diego.

"You’ve got to understand we have a rivalry, we play in the same division and we’re trying to do the same thing, which is win," Chapman said through an interpreter. "I’ve got to say whatever happened happened, that’s in the past. We’ve got to put that aside and focus on the series ahead. Especially Game 1, we want to go and get a win."

No one forgets, however. And in the pressure-cooker of a five-game series, it’s not going to take much to boil over again, even at neutral site Petco Park. The bad feelings are always simmering beneath the surface with these two.

"We understand it’s there," Giancarlo Stanton said. "They won the division, so they got that. But it's the full bragging rights chances here. Shirts and hats, that doesn’t mean anything. We’re going to be in San Diego and we’ll play it out there."

Or fight it out. With the Yankees and Rays, every series usually involves doing both.

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