The Rays currently have 14 players from their 60 man player pool on the IL, and have had two thirds of them hit the IL at some point this season. The Rays were the only team to win 40 games this year despite their injuries. The Yankees? They aren’t far behind, seeing injuries to pitchers such Luis Severino this year, and hitters such as Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton missing ample time due to injury. Both are the top two American League favorites for the World Series, but even more fascinating, this is the first time in the 22 year history of the Rays that these two divisional foes have any true heat. How did we get here?
The Yankees finished seven games back of the Rays this year, after going 2-8 against the newly christened “98ers.” The savages in the box did win 33 games out of a 60 game set, which certainly is nothing to look down upon or tread lightly. It’s the first year of Gerrit Cole in the Bronx, who was scintillating in his first postseason start donning the vaunted pinstripes. While his season was forgettable, Cole put his name in the anoles of Yankee playoff lore, alongside pitchers such as Whitey Ford, Don Larsen, Ralph Terry, Mariano Rivera, Mike Mussina and CC Sabathia. They will go into the ALDS as underdogs, but have a lineup that can slug with the best of them, featuring hitters that work the count better than anybody: Aaron Hicks, DJ LeMahieu, Brett Gardner, Gleyber Torres. They have the power to compliment it: Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Luke Voit. Perhaps, even a player such as Kyle Higashioka or Mike Ford can get their Raul Ibanez ALDS moment? Their pitching staff doesn’t match up with the Rays well after Cole, who the Rays will be countering with 2018 Cy Young award winner Blake Snell, as Masahiro Tanaka goes up against Tyler Glasnow and likely Deivi Garcia goes up against Charlie Morton. Their bullpen, however, can match the Rays. The Rays have a stellar bullpen with players such Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo and Peter Fairbanks, also known as guys who throw 98 mph. The Yankees? All-Star closer Zack Britton, All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman and Adam Ottavino who features one of MLBs filthiest sliders.
In a presser, Aaron Boone lamented “we’re clearly the underdogs now. They’re the big bad number one seed of the AL East.” While he said it in a more sarcastic tone, the roles have reversed as just a year ago the Rays chased the Yankees down the stretch and ended up winning the AL Wild Card game. The Yankees have all of the superstars, but the Rays have the young talent who tune out all of the people who scream “YOU CAN’T WIN” like they’re Adrian Pennino in the fourth installment of Rocky. The Yankees heading into 2020 were Ivan Drago, the Rays took care of them like they were Rocky Balboa to the surprise a lot of people. The Rays don’t have a superstar. They have roleplayers who excel at their roles. On paper, this roster is the weakest number one seed in a long time, but they don’t care. Somehow, this ragtag group of misfit ballplayers have become one of the best teams in baseball and absolutely annihilated the Yankees in 2020. In the ten games played, the Rays outscored New York 47-34, but that doesn’t matter. Now, it matters. Now, is when the Rays are the ones to prove they can go up against the big boys in the brightest of lights.
It all started four years ago, when rookie right fielder Aaron Judge broke the record for homeruns by a rookie, finishing second in AL MVP voting and becoming a bonafide superstar. One of the best and most likable talents in the game, Aaron Judge was drilled by Rays swingman Matt Andriese in May of that season. Andriese was dealt to Arizona in 2018 for current Rays backstop Mike Perez and currently pitches for the Angels, but this was the first incident with the current Yankee core. The Yankees were down 6-3 when Gary Sanchez hit a mammoth shot. Andriese got Matt Holliday with his next pitch on a ball that happened to get away. In the bottom half of the inning, Rays All-Star Corey Dickerson (currently playing for the Marlins) was drilled by Tommy Layne. Dickerson had already hit two homeruns on the night off of Masahiro Tanaka. In the top of the sixth, Andriese was ejected when a third batter, Aaron Judge, was drilled. Then manager and pitching coach for New York Joe Girardi and Larry Rothschild were also ejected.
In 2018, arguably the biggest incident occurred when Jake Bauers (literally a Ray for a minute) was hit in the hand by former AL Cy Young award winner CC Sabathia. The next inning, reliever Andrew Kittredge throwing behind the head of Austin Romine:
The four seam analysis in the video is fascinating. No pitcher should ever throw a fastball at anybody’s head. The next inning, CC Sabathia hit Rays catcher Jesus Sucre. CC, in his final start of the year, was two innings away from unlocking his bonus on innings pitched, which would’ve been an extra $500K in his pocket. Instead, he supported his teammates and screams “that’s for you, bitch” audibly at the Rays dugout. Kittredge got a three game suspension, Sabathia received five games. Sabathia noted that he “doesn’t make decisions based on money” and that he did it for his teammates. The Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman paid him the extra bonus anyway, citing that his selflessness and team first attitude was what the Yankees want out of their players.
The next incident is May of 2019, and also includes CC Sabathia. About a week previous, DJ LeMahieu hit a homerun off of Yonny Chirinos and the next pitch from Chirinos got away, making contact with Luke Voit. On this day, CC Sabathia threw at Rays All-Star outfielder Austin Meadows in retaliation. Meadows was not hit, and worked a walk in the at bat, did it raise some eyebrows.
CC was caught saying “I was definitely trying to hit his ass.” He had pitched Meadows in all at bat. The next start against the Yankees? Benches cleared when he got into it with Avisail Garcia. You can see Jomboy’s take below, as those are always fun.
CC Sabathia retired after the 2019 season, but it continued into 2020, where it reached its pinaccle. The Rays pitched up and in on DJ LeMahieu all season, as a way to get him to pop up, otherwise you aren’t getting the eventual batting champion out. Later, they also buzzed Giovanny Urshela, however.
It was on a 0-1 count, the ball happened to get away. The next pitch was called a strike and he proceeded to line out to Hunter Renfroe in right. It wasn’t in any way intentional. Judge noted after the game “you’re going to get a little barking from the dugout” expressing that this is the way that teams have to pitch to the Yankees but it happens to often from the Rays. The next day, the Bombers were called childish from Rays All-Star second baseman Brandon Lowe.
On the first of September, Masahiro Tanaka hit utility man Joey Wendle in the first inning. It was the hardest pitch Tanaka threw all night.
Aroldis Chapman threw three pitches to Mike Brosseau in the ninth, one of them barely missing his head. As I said earlier with Kittredge, there’s zero place for that in baseball. Of course, there should be zero place for a guy like Aroldis Chapman, but Hal Steinbrenner flat out said “sooner or later we forget, right” in reference to his domestic assault incident. Headhunting is nothing new for Chapman, with the most recognizable incident occurring at Pittsburgh against future teammate Andrew McCutchen while a member of the Cincinnati Reds. You can see Kevin Cash’s postgame response below.
With the Rays threatening with the stable of 98ers, the Yankees had their guard up the next day. The Rays response? Brosseau creaming their pitching staff, going deep in the first off of Jordann Montgomery and again in the fourth off of Jonathan Holder.
That was the last time they played in 2020, until Monday when Snell goes up against Cole with all the chips down and the cards on the table. This could be the first time true bad blood reveals itself into the postseason. It’s certainly the most interesting of the division matchups. The Rays went 8-2 against New York in the regular season, and hope to continue that trend. However, the Yankees lineup is the hottest it’s been all year, having lit up AL Triple Crown Shane Bieber in Game One of the wild card series and putting up 10 runs in Game 2. The Rays won 3-1 in Game 1 against Toronto but dominated Game 2, capped by a Hunter Renfroe grand slam. Their offense was carried by Renfroe and Manuel Margot, both of whom will return to their previous home park, Petco, in San Diego for the League Division Series.
The Rays have been selling “98ers” merchandise heading into the series. Kevin Kiermaier said today that they don’t like the Yankees and Brett Gardner responded that the feeling is mutual.
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