‘Top dog’ Rays ready to take on Yankees and their ‘heated’ history

ST. PETERSBURG — As they carry their season-starting, record-threatening rampage into a second month with a majors-best 26-6 record, the Rays now turn their attention to a Yankees team besieged by injuries and mired at the bottom of the American League East at 17-15.

But when they meet Friday night to open a three-game weekend series at Tropicana Field — the first of seven games in 10 days with a return engagement next week in New York — they expect the same level of intensity that has marked many of their meetings in recent years.

“It’s always going to be heated,” Rays pitcher Josh Fleming said. “Obviously, you get the AL East, the best division in baseball, and you get a team with the Yankees who’ve always been seen as the top dog against the guys that are actually the top dog right now.

“It’ll be heated, for sure. I don’t think to the extent where we’re going to be throwing at each other, but it’s always intense any time we play the Yankees.”

From a list of confrontations and conflict, the most dramatic moments came during the 2020 season.

First in a Sept. 1 game, when then-Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman threw a 101 mph fastball near the head of the Rays’ Mike Brosseau, prompting manager Kevin Cash’s famous threat of having “a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 miles an hour.”

Revenge came in the fifth and deciding game of the neutral-site AL Division Series, when Brosseau hit a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning off Chapman, and the Rays went on to eliminate the Yankees. As their postgame celebration spilled into the dugout in San Diego, they played, “New York, New York.”

Second baseman Brandon Lowe, the Rays’ most veteran position player, said the chippiness between the teams is a product of how competitive they are year after year.

“It’s two really good teams that are in the same division,” he said. “We’ve had to play each other, it feels like, 40 or 50 times a year previously. We knew that we always had to go through each other.

“And that was, I think, the biggest thing that created so much friction and so much heat is that both teams had aspirations of going to World Series and winning their division. And we were both extremely good teams. So, it was really a battle back and forth every single time we played against each other.”

Since the Rays first got good in 2008, they have won the AL East four times and made the playoffs eight; the Yankees have been division champs five times and played in 11 postseasons. The Rays have been to two World Series, losing in 2008 and 2020; the Yankees have been to one, winning in 2009.

Even with the Rays nine games ahead in the standings — a margin they’ve held only one other day since 2008 — the level of competition should be high on the field.

“I think everybody is excited to play against the Yankees,” Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena said via team interpreter Manny Navarro.

They’re excited in the stands, too, as the Rays — in anticipation of crowds approaching or exceeding 30,000 — have reopened the upper deck for the weekend.

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“Hopefully, it’s a lot of Rays fans; we’ll see,” Cash said. “It’s good for us. It’s good for baseball. I’m glad that fans are going to be, in theory, coming out for this weekend series, because I feel like the way we’ve performed it’s justified to have some good crowds.”

The Yankees’ struggles this season have been a result of injuries, as they have 12 players (and more than $150 million of salary, double the Rays’ total payroll) sidelined, including several key pitchers and lineup anchors Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, as well as Josh Donaldson.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone, after noting how well the Rays have started (“They’re playing like the best team in the league right now”), said Wednesday in New York that his team has to overcome its own problems, such as ranking 27th in the majors in average (.228), 24th in runs (125) and 23rd in OPS (.678). The Rays lead in all three categories, at .278, 210 and .876.

“Being banged up, we’ve had our challenges here a little bit offensively the last couple of weeks after getting off to a pretty, I thought, consistent and solid start in that department,” Boone said.

“So, we’ve got to find a way to generate some runs here, especially as we’re waiting on some guys to get back. … We’ll see. I think we have a chance to be really good. But that’s still all it is right now.”

General manager Brian Cashman also made a pitch for patience: “Don’t count us out,” he said Wednesday. “Don’t give up on us.”

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2023-05-05 10:03:04