Esteem and empathy.
This is where the Yankees-Rays rivalry — I suppose calling it the “Rays-Yankees rivalry” better captures the moment — resides at this meaningful milepost of the 2021 season. It can’t get that intense when only one team is playing well.
The Rays defeated the Yankees, 3-1, at a sunny Memorial Day matinee in The Bronx, the Yankees’ fourth straight loss and sixth in seven tries, as Aaron Boone’s bunch fell to 29-25 and dropped 5 ½ games behind Tampa Bay (35-20) in the American League East. At the one-third mark both spiritually (as per the holiday) and literally, the Yankees are on pace to finish 87-75 and miss the playoffs, an outcome that would arguably represent their worst season, viewed through a macrocosmic prism of where they are in their competitive cycle, since they began their run of consecutive winning seasons in 1993.
Tough times at Yankee Stadium, the $208 million home entity falling to 3-7 this year against the $82 million visitors. With the Yankees voicing their immense respect for the Rays, both before and after this game, and the Rays commiserating with the Yankees and their horrific offense, which, at 3.74 runs per game, ties the Orioles for 13th — second-worst! — in the AL.
But let’s start with what Boone and losing pitcher Jameson Taillon said about the Rays.
Boone, before the game: “I think we’ve seen their roster kind of evolve over the years and it’s a roster that really complements one another from a position-player standpoint. I think we’ll see what, 13 position players today? They all kind of complement each other and make up a really good, whatever nine they have that day. The four guys on the bench typically complement them real well. They’re versatile, they’re athletic.”
Taillon, after he allowed three runs in five-plus innings, good enough to keep a team with an adequate offense in the contest: “They play a good, hard, team game. They do a lot of things really well throughout the lineup. They got a mix of speed, a good mix of right-hand and left-hand hitters, a mix of power, a mix of contact, a mix of patience with some aggressive guys. So they throw a bunch of different looks at you. … It’s a grind. They’re a tough lineup.”
Would you offer any of those compliments — throw in the Rays’ excellent defense — to the Yankees right now? You most certainly would not. Their lack of diversity, when it comes to both handedness and speed, doesn’t matter when they’re devouring other clubs’ pitchers, and they can work around their defensive shortcomings. All of those sure matter now. The guy who had provided some diversity with his offensive approach the prior two seasons, DJ LeMahieu, went 0-for-4 Monday and owns a .684 OPS, an astounding 327-point drop from 2020 and 209 points from his last full campaign of 2019. Not a very promising start to Year 1 of his six-year, $90 million extension.
Then we veer to the Rays, who discussed seeing the once-vaunted Yankees offense in such disrepair.
“From the other dugout, you sit there and say it’s just a matter of time. Try to take advantage of these opportunities when they’re quiet for whatever reason,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “But we know how capable, how dangerous they are and we want to keep pitching really well. It’s not a not a good feeling when those guys come up with men on base, I can tell you that.”
“I still think they’ve got some boys over there who can swing the bats,” Rays veteran center-fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “They’re so talented over there, you never let up the gas pedal with the team like that, because at any moment, one through nine, they have proven for years now that they can swing the bats and then some.”
The Rays’ pitchers, good as they may be, are not alone in their ability to contain those Yankees bats, who have 108 games left to cure what ails them, to displace these Rays-Yankees niceties and divert from a disastrous result to this vital season.