FLUSHING — Excuse the dateline, but to avoid any confusion, Monday night’s game between the Yankees and Rays did not take place in the Bronx or St. Petersburg, Florida. And despite it being played at the other end of the RFK Bridge, a short drive from Manhattan, the team from New York actually was the visitor to Citi Field.
Got all that?
The fury of Hurricane Irma upended the lives of millions of Floridians, including the players that call Tropicana Field home. But for these two teams, the show had to go on — somewhere — and the most suitable place wound up being in the Yankees’ backyard, under the auspices of Queens providing a “neutral” location.
While it’s true Citi Field doesn’t have a Monument Park, or a giant mural of George Steinbrenner adorning the rightfield bleachers, to call this stadium “neutral” for Monday night’s game would be a gross misuse of the word after witnessing the Yankees’ 5-1 victory on Roosevelt Ave.
Other than Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg sitting in the front row, there were few, if any, fans of the displaced team. And the only anti-Yankee sentiment expressed was by the Mets’ loyalists who showed up, mostly in support of Lucas Duda. It was an impressive turnout on short notice (officially 15,327) and 90 percent saturated by fans in either navy blue or pinstripes.
“Before the game even started,” Todd Frazier said, “you heard, ‘Let’s Go Yankees!’ It was different.”
Or pretty much the same, from a Bronx perspective. The Yankees caught a huge break in getting this series moved down the road rather than to Chicago or Baltimore, two other sites that were under consideration. The Rays had the shorter hop down from Boston, as Joe Girardi & Co. had to fly in from Dallas last Sunday night. But Monday night’s win began a stretch where 16 of the Yankees’ final 19 games are in New York, and they don’t leave the city again until Sept. 22 for a weekend series in Toronto.
“Of course you try to take advantage of being at home,” Girardi said. “We’re built for our home ballpark.”
With its expansive green lawn, Citi is no Yankee Stadium. Even Aaron Judge looked smaller standing in rightfield, surrounded by what seemed like acres of grass compared to the Bronx. And for all the novelty wrapped up in the emergency makeup game, this was still a business trip for the Yankees, with a much easier commute.
The Rays had more on their plate. Not only were they trying to keep a toehold in the wild-card race, but the Irma-inflicted damage on the Tampa Bay region was foremost in their minds, too. The Mets’ support staff did a great job making the clubhouse feel like home, putting up Rays nameplates — even giving Lucas Duda his old corner locker back. The Rays’ hitters had their customized walk-up music on cue (the Yankees did not) and they appreciated the creature comforts of Citi.
“The House That Duda Built!” one joked.
For the Rays, this felt like a happy distraction, an opportunity to call a state-of-the-art ballpark home, if only for three days. Despite the occasional upgrades to the Trop, the dimly-lit dome can never measure up to a modern stadium. And when it came time to play, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots only grew wider.
Rays starter Jake Odorizzi held the Yankees hitless for three innings, but a pair of errors in the fourth -- which included Jacoby Ellsbury’s record 30th catcher’s interference call -- led to four unearned runs, three coming on Todd Frazier’s eighth homer (in 49 games) since the trade, a long blast that slammed off the second-deck facade in leftfield.
“It seems like when we come to the ballpark now,” Frazier said, “something good is going to happen.”
The only downer for the Yankees was the quick fade of CC Sabathia, who was pulled with one out in the fifth inning despite a 5-1 lead. With Evan Longoria up next (.421 BA vs. Sabathia) and David Robertson warmed, Girardi believed it was a no-brainer and the Yankees’ relief corps rewarded him with 4 2/3 scoreless innings.
An effective bullpen travels well. And it helps when the trip is only a bit further than the end of your driveway.