Yankees Keep their ‘nemesis’ on edge with resolute pushback

Anthony Rizzo of the Yankees hit a home run against the Rays at Yankee Stadium on May 13, 2023,
John Allen
Monday May 15, 2023

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In the past two seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays coined a new term to describe their approach against the Yankees — the nemesis. Their primary aim has been to overwhelm the Yankees, the foremost divisional contenders.

The Rays won eight out of ten games against the Yankees in 2020, and they also won a five-game American League Division Series in San Diego. In 2021, they won 11 out of 19 games, including seven out of 10 games in New York. The Rays secured five of those wins in the first two months of the season, during which the Yankees had a struggling record of around .500.

In the previous season, the balance shifted and the Yankees won 11 out of 19 games against the Rays, who had fewer wins and were eliminated in the wild-card round. However, this year, the Rays started strong with 13 consecutive victories, while the Yankees suffered numerous injuries and a decline in their performance, causing some to prematurely declare their season over.

At the end of their 42nd game out of a total of 162, the Yankees were eight games behind the Rays. However, their performance has improved, and they have shown they can compete with the team with the best record in baseball. The Rays have won four out of the first seven games between the two teams, with three of those games decided by one run. Currently, the Rays have a record of 31-11, but they have slowed down since their very fast start, going 18-11 since then.

During the past weekend’s games, the decisions made by managers and pitchers regarding their pitch selection were crucial, and the atmosphere was reminiscent of playoff games.

The Yankees are ready for an intense rivalry

During Friday’s game, the Yankees were leading by two runs when Michael King was brought in to pitch in the eighth inning, but unfortunately, he allowed a three-run homer to Josh Lowe. In the bottom half, Kevin Kelly chose not to pitch to Aaron Judge in the strike zone, which resulted in a walk. Then, manager Kevin Cash brought in Jason Adam to face Anthony Rizzo, and Adam threw a changeup that landed in the right field seats, leading to the Yankees winning 6-5. The game was official when Aaron Boone’s decision to use Wandy Peralta for the save was successful.

Adam said on Friday that Judge is a good hitter and he was thinking of getting a strike on the first pitch. He mentioned that his changeup is a pitch that helped him to reach where he is now, so he trusted it. He also added that he tried to throw the changeup a little too high in the zone. He didn’t see the replay but acknowledged that Judge is a good player and he put a good swing on it, and it’s disappointing.

DJ LeMahieu is stealing a base against the Rays at Yankee Stadium on May 13, 2023. the Yankees win 9-8.

On the following day, the Yankees faced another setback as Nestor Cortes lost control of his pitches in the fifth inning while facing the Rays for the third time through the lineup, resulting in a grand slam by Yandy Diaz and a six-run deficit. However, the Yankees fought back and managed to take a 9-6 lead. This was partly due to the decision to have Anthony Volpe bunt for a hit and steal two more bases before Aaron Judge hit his second homer of the game, marking his 29th game with multiple homers and a go-ahead two-run homer that flew 439 feet.

As the Yankees rallied from a six-run deficit against ace Shane McClanahan with the help of Volpe, the atmosphere in the dugout was one of determination to defeat the Rays, reminiscent of when the Rays came back against Gerrit Cole a week earlier.

Judge expressed that they are playing against a strong opponent who consistently performs at a high level and that both teams are competing hard. He also noted that there were many determined at-bats and that he enjoyed being a part of it.

On Saturday, the Yankees made more strategic moves that yielded positive results. When Ron Marinaccio allowed two hits, Clay Holmes was brought in for four outs. Though he gave up two runs on a soft single, he prevented the game from getting out of hand.

Boone made a decision to replace Isiah Kiner-Falefa with Oswaldo Cabrera as a pinch hitter in the sixth inning, and Holmes came in to pitch after that. The decision to use Cabrera worked out as he hit a two-run single, giving the team a three-run lead.

The power burst

In the last game of the series, before the Yankees and Rays meet again on July 31 in St. Petersburg, the teams played another game that had a playoff atmosphere. The Rays ultimately won thanks to a sudden display of power by Taylor Walls. Walls had struggled last year, hitting just .172 in 142 games, but in this series, he raised his batting average from .262 to .281 and made a significant contribution to the Rays’ victory with a crucial grand slam.

Aaron Judge put on a power-hitting display on May 13, 2023, at Yankee Stadium, smashing two homers to help the Yankees secure a 9-8 win over the Rays.

The Yankees lost the game due to two unsuccessful decisions. First, they brought in Albert Abreu to pitch, which didn’t work out. Second, Abreu decided to throw four consecutive changeups, and the final pitch resulted in a home run to the right field. This allowed Taylor Walls of the Rays to hit a grand slam and win the game.

The Rays, like other teams, were aware that no lead was safe, and despite a 10 mph wind blowing in left field, they were able to hold onto their lead. Aaron Judge’s fly ball in the final moments of the game could have tied the score, but it fell short and was caught by Jose Siri after Jason Adam reacted with fear to the ball’s trajectory. Although Judge didn’t think the ball was going out of the park, the game ended in an exciting manner.

Adam said he thought the ball was going to be hit 30 rows deep, but he was grateful that Judge missed more than he anticipated, and that Siri was in position to catch it.

Judge said that he had hit the ball well, but he hit it too high off the bat, particularly considering how deep it is out there. He added that he was hoping for a miracle once the ball got up there.

The Yankees have an eight-game deficit to overcome. However, they can take satisfaction in the recent improvements in their performances while ignoring the critics who suggest that a 162-game season with an expanded playoff field might end as early as Mother’s Day weekend.

Walls acknowledged that the Yankees were a tough team to play against, stating that every time the Rays took the lead, the Yankees would respond and either regain the lead or score runs to match the Rays’ previous inning.

The Yankees showed tenacity even in loss

The Yankees missed the opportunity to win the series against the top-ranked Tampa Bay Rays, who lead the American League East and currently have the best record in the MLB, as they were unable to complete a comeback.

yankees-win-vs-rays
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The Yankees were not able to win the series against the Tampa Bay Rays, and instead, they ended up with a series split following their 8-7 loss in front of a crowd of 42,116 people at Yankee Stadium.

In the eighth inning, Anthony Volpe hit a two-run homer to bring the Yankees within one run of the Rays, but they couldn’t catch up any further. In the ninth inning, with two outs, Aaron Judge hit a deep fly ball to left-center field, but it didn’t make it over the wall and was caught by Jose Siri.

Judge said that he believes they are in a good position and acknowledged that they had some back-and-forth battles. He also mentioned that they did not want to leave the series with just a split, but he acknowledged that the Rays are one of the best teams in baseball and that they fought hard against each other.

The Yankees missed an opportunity to reduce the gap in the division to six games due to their loss, and as a result, they will end the weekend trailing Tampa Bay by eight games.

The Rays’ lineup was too much for Clarke Schmidt, and when Aaron Boone brought in Albert Abreu, who had a 5.09 ERA going into the game, with two outs in the top of the fifth, it didn’t go as planned. Abreu gave up a grand slam to Taylor Walls, extending Tampa Bay’s lead by four runs.

This made Anthony Rizzo’s two-run home run in the third inning meaningless, which had given the Yankees a brief lead.

Despite facing numerous challenges, the Yankees demonstrated over the weekend that they could put up a good fight, which was not evident just a week earlier when they were struggling with hitting and dealing with several significant injuries.

The return of Harrison Bader and Aaron Judge has sparked the team’s batting performance, and Bader’s contribution in centerfield has been crucial.

Boone expressed that his team is in a good place in terms of their play and focus, and he feels that they are making good adjustments. Although they were not able to finish the game off today, he is pleased with the team’s mindset and their ability to bring their best effort every day.

The Yankees are facing a problem with their rotation, as several key starters have been injured. Schmidt is still struggling, and Cortes has not been able to perform as well as he did in the previous season, with an ERA of 5.53.

The Yankees demonstrated their resilience over the past few days by winning six of their previous eight games through come-from-behind efforts, indicating that they have the ability to fight back.

On Saturday, the Yankees managed to come back from a six-run deficit in a game where Judge hit two home runs. This was a stark contrast from a week prior when the team suffered a bitter defeat after Gerrit Cole gave up a six-run lead against the Rays at Tropicana Field.

Judge said that the team is made of that kind of resilience. He added that they had a lot of comeback victories last year and this year is no different. He believes that they are never out of any ballgame regardless of the score.

Yankees' Anthony Volpe and Anthony Rizzo are celebrating Volpe's home run against the Guardians on May 2, 2023, at Yankee Stadium.
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Can the Yankees make a comeback in the division?

In April, the Rays had an easy time as they faced some of the weakest teams in Major League Baseball. They won 16 out of 17 games against teams such as the Tigers, Nationals, Athletics, Reds, and White Sox, all of which have losing records at present. The Athletics and the White Sox are especially two of the weakest teams in the league.

Tampa Bay was successful in building its lead in the division by beating struggling teams, which was not accidental. They had the best team batting average(.276), on-base percentage (.348), slugging percentage (.508), and OPS (.856) in the major leagues, and also had hit 80 home runs the most home runs in the majors by 13.

Tampa Bay’s run differential, which measures the difference between the number of runs a team has scored and the number of runs they have allowed, was the highest in Major League Baseball at plus-119. This was the seventh-best run differential recorded through 41 games in MLB history and the best since the 1936 New York Yankees.

Despite facing weaker opponents in the early part of the season, Kevin Cash’s team, Tampa Bay, is considered a genuine threat. However, their pitching depth has taken a significant hit recently, with the latest setback being right-hander Drew Rasmussen’s placement on the 60-day injured list due to a flexor strain. This news came one day after Rasmussen pitched seven scoreless innings against the Yankees in an 8-2 win.

The question is whether the Rays are a top-tier team, and at this point, they have performed like one. However, is it possible that they might have weaknesses moving forward?

This is definitely a possible outcome. The Yankees need to catch up and improve their performance. However, their weekend games showed a glimmer of hope that they may be ready to face the challenge.

Boone said that he believed the group was playing with confidence and great intent. He added that they had to continue to work to get better.

What do you think? Leave your comment below.

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