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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Rays establishing themselves as the superior team when it matters most

The Rays' Kevin Kiermaier, left, celebrates with Michael

The Rays' Kevin Kiermaier, left, celebrates with Michael Perez after Perez hit a two-run home run to score Kiermaier against the Yankees during the sixth inning in Game 3 of the American League Division Series on Wednesday in San Diego. Credit: AP/Jae C. Hong

Maybe the Yankees should have used Masahiro Tanaka as an opener Wednesday night.

Too soon? Just trying to lighten the mood, because things couldn’t be going much worse right now for Aaron Boone & Co. Those irritating Rays, that too-familiar AL East annoyance, are doing it again, picking up where they left off during the regular season.

The Yankees were operating under the belief that dropping eight of 10 to Tampa Bay during coronaball’s regional schedule was a fluke, an outlier, an anomaly due to the All-Stars missing in the Bronx.

Once the playoffs began, these rejuvenated, healthy Yankees would flip that loser script, and get their revenge. They did. It lasted one night.

But since Game 1, it’s been all Rays -- again -- and now the Yankees are facing elimination in this Division Series after Wednesday’s 8-4 loss at Petco Park. Turns out, it doesn’t matter where these two teams play, whether it’s The Trop or Williamsport, the Rays are establishing themselves as the superior club when it matters most.

And the Yankees? Game 5 starter Jordan Montgomery is all that stands between them and a long winter of wondering exactly what went wrong. Other than facing the Rays too many times, of course.

"We knew we were in for a dogfight," Aaron Judge said. "They’re not going to let up. We knew they were going to come out fighting, come out swinging, and now it’s time for us to do the same thing, to turn it around.

"We've been in this position before. We've been down to our final game. It’s just about how we respond."

The Yankees went from rolling to roadkill the past two nights. While Gerrit Cole has proven himself worthy of that $324-million contract, the rest of the pitching staff has mostly crumbled around him -- partly due to the nudge from that Garcia-Happ opener fiasco in Game 2 and another untimely playoff meltdown Wednesday by Tanaka, who served up five runs over four innings.

When Cole isn’t on the mound, the Yankees have surrendered 25 earned runs over 31 innings during this postseason for a 7.26 ERA. If the Yankees are going deep with regularity, maybe that doesn't seem like a fatal flaw. But it certainly feels that way now.

The Yankees entered Wednesday with a record 13 homers through their first four playoff games and had scored 36 runs, the second-most ever during that span. Now that it’s just Stanton, who smacked his sixth homer of this postseason Wednesday, he can’t do it on his own. Judge delivered a sacrifice fly Wednesday, but is hitting .130 (3-for-23) with a pair of homers and nine strikeouts.

"This is the playoffs -- you’re not going to get too many cookies," Judge said. "Every now and then, you’ve got to battle off some tough pitches. That's all you can really do."

Boone specifically lined up Tanaka for the pivotal Game 3, banking on his playoff resume. But if this turns out to be Tanaka’s final performance in pinstripes -- he’s a free agent this winter -- his last Yankee pitch was the hanging slider Randy Arozarena hammered over the leftfield wall to open the fifth inning. Tanaka also placed a curve ball on a tee for Kevin Kermaier, who smoked a three-run homer in the fourth inning that put the Rays ahead to stay, 4-1.

"The Rays are pretty good at taking their time, and sitting on certain pitches, and thinking along with you," Kyle Higashioka said. "A couple of times they were a step ahead of us. I think next time we need to be a little more unpredictable."

You could say Tanaka was undone by the miserable rain delays in Cleveland, but the weather was perfect in SoCal, and still his postseason slide continued. Over his last three playoff starts, Tanaka has now allowed 15 runs in 13 innings (10.38 ERA) with three homers. During his previous seven, when Tanaka was barely touched, giving up six runs over 41 innings (1.32 ERA) with three homers.

"I thought my stuff was better compared to my last start, and I thought I was well-prepared going into this game," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "So that makes it even more frustrating that I wasn’t able to get the results tonight."

Looking back, the Garcia-Happ gambit could be the tipping point in this series, as the Yankees badly whiffed in their attempt to out-Ray the Rays. After Game 3 got away from Tanaka, Boone said he had no regrets about their rotation plans. "He was was going to start one of these games," the manager said, "and we obviously need to get to three wins to move on."

Now the Yankees can only focus on one win. Or go home.

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