Losing three straight games to the Yankees when they needed them most hamstrung the Rays in their pursuit of the Red Sox. Now, teetering on the brink of extinction, the Rays managed to pull off a blowout of mammoth proportions, winning 15-8 (though that makes it seem closer than it was) by riding the bat of Ben Zobrist and the arm of their most promising young pitcher. In so doing, they moved to within two games of Boston.
Matt Moore is considered the best pitching prospect in all of baseball, and he had quite the first career start. Historic, even. For a rookie, and for anyone:
@ESPNStatsInfo ESPN Stats & Info The Matt Moore legend: Elias tells us that he is the 1st pitcher to strike out at least 11 hitters in 5 IP or fewer vs the Yankees. Ever. Sep 23 via webFavoriteRetweetReply
Moore went precisely five innings, giving up four hits and a walk, before yielding to his bullpen, which surrendered eight runs in four innings to a watered-down Yankee offense. Zobrist and B.J. Upton each went 3-4 with a home run and three RBI to propel the Tampa offense, which generated 13 runs in the first five frames.
Meanwhile, on the other side, this game meant nothing. The Yankees clinched the division Wednesday night, and are now in full rest-up-for-the-postseason mode. All three backup catchers — Jorge Posada, Jesus Montero and Austin Romine — saw action in this game (Posada at first base) and all hit. This is the only indecision concerning Yankee fans at the moment.
Bartolo Colon might have pitched himself out of the playoff rotation, giving up seven runs in three innings. After CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova, the Yankees might prefer rolling with Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia over Colon and A.J. Burnett.
For more Yankees news, visit Pinstripe Alley. To gear up for the Rays' furious pursuit of the Red Sox, head to DRays Bay.
The New York Yankees once again captured an AL East championship, downing the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday night to clinch the division. After ensuring a playoff berth with a 4-2 win in the opener of Wednesday's day-night doubleheader, the Yankees needed a Boston Red Sox loss -- which came midway through the nightcap -- and their own win to end the evening with another title.
After the Yankees jumped out to a 2-0 lead early, home runs by the Rays' Kelly Shoppach and Sean Rodriguez in the fifth and seventh innings knotted the game up.
Juan Cruz entered the game to face Mark Teixeira, who walked. Cesar Ramos entered the game for the lefty-lefty matchup against Robinson Cano and wound up intentionally walking the Yankees' second baseman. With the bases loaded, manager Joe Girardi turned to the bench, bringing in Jorge Posada as a pinch-hitter. The veteran delivered a base knock to right-center field, plating two runs for the 4-2 lead.
Rafael Soriano came in to pitch the ninth inning for the Yankees, easily picking up the first two outs. Casey Kotchman, though, prolonged the game with a single. But that was the extent of the Rays threat as Soriano struck out Matt Joyce to end the game and secure the AL East crown.
CC Sabathia allowed both Tampa Bay runs in seven innings on the mound, striking out six.
The Yankees have one more game against the Rays before they play the Red Sox over the weekend. Boston's Wild Card lead is slipping away after another loss to the Orioles as the Red Sox prepare for the weekend's huge series.
One angle here is that the Yankees clinched their 16th playoff berth in 17 years. They came in with a magic number of two, with the win and the Rays' loss dropping that to zero. As such, the Yankees are officially guaranteed to participate in the postseason, as they have every year since 1995, excepting 2008.
But that isn't the big angle. That isn't the main angle. The more important angle here is that the Rays had the lead and then lost, dealing a significant blow to their chances of surpassing the Boston Red Sox for the Wild Card.
The Rays entered the day two games behind the Red Sox in the standings, but with a chance to make up some ground. They had a decided pitching advantage in the first game of their doubleheader, sending James Shields up against Hector Noesi. Noesi was making his first start of the year.
The Yankees struck early. With two outs in the first, Alex Rodriguez blasted an RBI double to dead center, scoring Derek Jeter.
But the Rays weren't behind long. It was a 1-0 game in the third when Desmond Jennings batted with one out and a runner 90 feet away. Noesi climbed the ladder with a 2-and-1 fastball, and Jennings went up and got it, launching a two-run homer out to left-center.
And the score remained 2-1 Rays for quite some time. The Yankees had a chance to even things up in the fifth when Austin Romine batted with one out and a runner on third, but Romine lined out to a diving Evan Longoria, who touched third base for the unfortunate double play.
Still ahead one, the Rays put two aboard with one out in the top of the eighth. Facing Luis Ayala, though, both Ben Zobrist and Reid Brignac struck out swinging, killing the chances for any insurance.
And that proved critical just minutes later. Leading off the bottom of the eighth, Eduardo Nunez ripped a low line drive to left off a Shields changeup that narrowly cleared the fence, tying the game. After a strikeout, a single and a walk, Shields was replaced by J.P. Howell, but Howell fell behind Robinson Cano 3-and-1 and then made a grave mistake:
Cano destroyed Howell's hanging slider for a two-run double, and though the Yankees wouldn't score again, the damage was done - New York was on top 4-2, and they got to hand the ball to Mariano Rivera. Rivera recorded his usual results.
If you want a sense of the Rays' reaction:
The Rays had a chance to close the gap and keep the pressure on the Red Sox, but instead they blew a late lead and did themselves great harm. While their playoff chances aren't completely shot, now they badly need Jeremy Hellickson to outpitch CC Sabathia in Wednesday's nightcap. Which, well, I guess. Maybe.
As for the Yankees, congratulations to them. But we all know the regular season is just a formality.