NEW YORK – The Yankees couldn’t finish a comeback this time, and that ultimately cost them a chance at winning the series against the rival Tampa Bay Rays, owners of the top spot in the American League East and the best record in Major League Baseball.
Instead Aaron Boone’s club had to settle for a series split with Sunday’s 8-7 loss before a crowd of 42,116 at Yankee Stadium.
Anthony Volpe’s two-run home run in the eighth made it a one-run game, but that’s as close as the Yankees could get. Aaron Judge hit a long fly ball to left-center field with two outs in the ninth, but it fell just short of the wall and into Jose Siri’s glove.
“I think we’re in a good spot,” Judge said. “We’ve had some battles back and forth. We didn’t want to come in here and split the series. But they’re one of the best teams in baseball, and we battled back and forth.”
The loss cost the Yanks a chance to close the gap in the division to six games – instead they’ll exit the weekend eight games in back of Tampa Bay.
Clarke Schmidt couldn’t limit the Rays’ lineup, and Boone’s decision to give the ball to Albert Abreu, who owned a 5.09 ERA entering the day, with two outs in the top of the fifth backfired when Abreu surrendered a grand slam to Taylor Walls that put Tampa Bay up by four.
That negated Anthony Rizzo’s two-run blast in the third that gave the Yankees a one-run lead.
And yet despite all of that, the Yankees at least showed this weekend that they might be more ready to put up a fight than it had appeared just a week ago, when they couldn’t hit and had endured key injury after key injury.
Getting Harrison Bader and Aaron Judge back has helped reignite the lineup – not to mention the importance of Bader’s defense in centerfield.
“They’re in a really good place as far their play, their focus,” Boone said of his team. “I feel like they’re making good adjustments. Disappointing to not finish it off today, but I do feel very pleased with where this group is at as a mindset and bringing it every day.”
The Yankees do need to get more from their rotation, one that’s been hit by injuries to key starters. Schmidt continues to struggle and Nestor Cortes has failed to rediscover his form from a season ago with a 5.53 ERA.
But with Luis Severino potentially a week away from returning – Boone before the game didn’t rule out the possibility of him rejoining the rotation next week in Cincinnati – help could be on the way. The team is also hoping that Carlos Rodon’s return will come sooner rather than later.
If anything the Yankees showed these last few days they have some fight in them – six of their previous eight wins entering the day were come-from-behind victories.
That included Saturday’s game where they overcame a six-run deficit with the help of two home runs by Judge. That game completely flipping the script from a week earlier when Gerrit Cole surrendered a six-run lead against the Rays at Tropicana Field on the way to a stinging, disappointing loss.
“That’s what this team’s made of,” Judge said. “We did that a lot last year with some good comeback victories. This year’s no different. We’re never out of any ballgame, no matter what the score is.”
Can the Yankees make a comeback in the division? That question remains unanswered.
The Rays cruised through April, fattening up by beating some of the worst teams in the major leagues. They went 16-1 against the Tigers, Nationals, Athletics, Reds and White Sox, all teams that currently own losing records. Oakland and Chicago, in particular, are two of the worst teams in baseball.
To Tampa Bay’s credit, it did what it needed to do, beating struggling teams to build its lead atop division. It wasn’t an accident. The Rays entered Sunday owning the highest team batting average (.276), on-base percentage (.348), slugging percentage (.508) and OPS (.856) in the major leagues. They also had hit 80 home runs entering the day, the most in the majors by 13.
Their run differential of plus-119 also led MLB, and it was the seventh-best mark through 41 games in major league history and the best since the 1936 Yankees.
Regardless of the quality of opponents Kevin Cash’s team has played through the early part of the season, Tampa Bay is a legitimate threat. But it’s a threat that has had its pitching depth take a considerable hit, the latest blow coming when right-hander Drew Rasmussen was played on the 60-day injured list because of a flexor strain – one day after he threw seven scoreless innings against the Yankees in an 8-2 victory.
So are the Rays an elite team? So far, that’s been the case. Could they be vulnerable the rest of the way?
That’s certainly a possibility.
The Yankees have ground to make up. They have work to do. They showed this weekend that maybe, just maybe, they’ll be up for the challenge.
“I think the group is playing with confidence and I think great intent,” Boone said. “We’ve just got to keep that going and continuing to work to get better, though, as well.”
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