Yankees miss message-sending opportunity against rival Rays

Call this one a message in a bumble.

Get all of those stipulations out of the way: Just one game Friday at Tropicana Field. Just seven games down in the season. The Yankees remain robustly, mathematically alive to capture the 2021 championship.

Yet if any Yankee tries to tell you that the club didn’t want to open up this season series with a haymaker to the Rays, after everything that transpired last year, hook that person up to a lie-detector test. Instead, it was Aaron Boone’s bunch, without Aaron Judge again, that absorbed mighty blows to the tune of a 10-5 loss on the day the Rays raised their banner as defending American League champions.

“We always want to send a message. We always want you to know who you’re playing,” Boone said after this stinker. “But the message is sent throughout the year as far as our play, and we have to play [consistently] and play well. If we do that, we’ll be the team we expect to be.”

The Yankees, who as you know lost eight of 10 regular-season battles and then the AL Division Series to the 2020 Rays, sure didn’t present themselves as any sort of challenger on this day. To the contrary, they served as a salve for the Rays, who opened their home schedule as the owners of a 2-4 record, underperformance and injuries defining their first week. Said Tampa Bay third baseman Joey Wendle: “Kind of a special game, and fun. It was overall one I think we’ll remember.

New York Yankees starting pitcher Corey Kluber, right, hands the ball to manager Aaron Boone as he is taken out of the game.
Corey Kluber struggled mightily in his second Yankees start.
AP Photo

Strong pitching, shaky hitting and defense and another Judge health headache defined the Yankees’ first week, as they went 3-3 on their homestand out of the gate, and The Trop didn’t cure anything that ailed them.

Corey Kluber, whom the Rays also pursued last winter when the Yankees landed him for a startling $11 million, fared poorly in his second start as a Yankee, failing to make it through the third inning as he took his team’s one lead (a four-run top of the third putting the visitors up, 4-2) and handed it back and then some in the bottom of the frame. In the spirit of spreading the blame, Kluber didn’t receive much assistance from his defense, as DJ LeMahieu’s second-inning throwing error on Yandy Diaz’s groundball to third — LeMahieu switching to the hot corner because due to Gio Urshela suffering side effects from the coronavirus vaccine — initiated a two-run rally. In the next play of that rally, LeMahieu’s keystone replacement, Tyler Wade, couldn’t stop a Wendle grounder from reaching right field.

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The game-turning, third-inning rally began after beleaguered Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres couldn’t snare Yoshi Tsutsugo’s foul pop to the left side after a long run; given another opportunity, Tsutsugo smacked a single to right field. While the official scorer rightly didn’t charge Torres with an error given the play’s degree of difficulty, you couldn’t help but wonder whether a more adept shortstop would have made the catch.

“It’s a very difficult play,” Boone said. “Obviously, [that and the LeMahieu miscue are] ones we expect to make.”

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The Yankees’ offense continued its hot-and-cold nature by putting together a beautiful, two-out rally off Rays starter Rich Hill in the top of the third inning: Wade single, LeMahieu double, Giancarlo Stanton two-run single and Aaron Hicks two-run homer. Yet when the Rays punched right back, the Yankees didn’t return the favor, and Nick Nelson — who like nearly everyone in the team’s bullpen pitched exceptionally through the homestand — let the game get out of control with a four-run fourth. The Yankees managed four baserunners, including a solo homer from LeMahieu, over the last six innings.

Throw in another Did Not Play from Judge, due to his mysterious left side injury, and the Yankees found few silver linings at the office. Zero reasons to make the Rays shake from their reintroduction.

“We’ve moved past it,” Tampa Bay second baseman Brandon Lowe said of last year’s chippy Yankees-Rays rivalry. “What happened, happened. It’s over with. We’re moving on.”

The Yankees, still wobbly, blew their first shot to move on the Rays. For such a talented group, they sure have sent an inviting message so far.

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