Commentary

Rays could come back to bite Bombers

In ridding themselves of the Red Sox, Yanks may have created a monster in Tampa

Updated: September 29, 2011, 6:51 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The New York Yankees helped drive a stake through the heart of one city Wednesday night and, in the process, applied a rejuvenating jolt to the heart of another.

By losing to the Tampa Bay Rays, they helped ensure a bleak October for the Boston Red Sox, but in helping to destroy one monster, the Yankees may well have helped to create another. Ding, dong, the Red Sox are dead, which is what a lot of Yankees fans were hoping for, and what at least one columnist that I know very well insisted was a must just a week ago.

Evan Longoria
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaEvan Longoria had a night to remember Wednesday. And it could turn out to be one the Yankees may soon want to forget.

But now, having watched the Rays find their legs and their hearts and, finally, the AL wild card over the course of that week, culminated by their heart-stopping 8-7 victory over the Yankees in the regular-season finale Wednesday night at The Trop, said columnist now hears the words of Derek Jeter echoing from the Yankee Stadium clubhouse last week: "I never wish to play anybody, buddy."

At the time, the Red Sox looked like the perennial movie villain that the hero fails to kill off in the first reel, only to have him come back, stronger, in the last reel and wage a fight to the death.

The Yankees' easiest road to the World Series seemed to include taking a wide detour around Boston.

Now, after seeing the Rays overcome a 7-0 deficit after five innings and battle back -- one strike from defeat and the end not only of their season but of their improbable drive to the wild card -- to tie the game on a pinch-hit home run by Dan Johnson, it appears the villainous Red Sox may have been replaced by the equally treacherous, but a lot more stealthy, Rays.

"Give them a lot of credit," said Mark Teixeira, who had two home runs, including what should have been a back-breaking grand slam off David Price in the second inning. "Down seven runs, going into the eighth inning, with their season on the line? You give them a lot of credit for the way they fought back."

You can console yourself all you like with how much more this game meant to the Rays than to the Yankees, and how the Yankees didn't even use a real starting pitcher, just a minor leaguer named Dellin Betances followed by a parade of middle relievers, but that is at variance with the truth.

The Yankees were certainly trying to win this game, as evidenced by their starting lineup, which included every one of their regulars minus Alex Rodriguez, a last-minute scratch with a sore right knee.

And while it is true that the Rays got to hit against George Kontos, Aaron Laffey, Raul Valdes, Andrew Brackman and Scott Proctor, none of whom will get near a playoff game this year without buying a ticket, all the major damage was done against pitchers whom the Yankees will use in the postseason -- Boone Logan, Luis Ayala and Cory Wade.

"I don't make too much of that," Joe Girardi said. "You just don't."

And it is also true that under normal circumstances, the one-run lead the Yankees carried into the ninth inning would have been placed in the usually iron-clad hands of Mariano Rivera.

But it wasn't, and Wade couldn't, and Johnson did, and by that time, the Rays were a fire-breathing dragon whom you just knew would eventually win this game.

When, 1,000 miles north at Camden Yards, the Red Sox completed their gagfest against the Baltimore Orioles, you could have guessed what was going to happen here, and when Evan Longoria lined Proctor's 2-2 fastball over the left-field fence -- his second of the game, after having drawn the Rays to within a run off Ayala in the eighth -- it was hard to imagine a more stirring or emboldening sort of victory.

Longoria, as much the face of this franchise as Jeter is of his, embodies the spirit of a team whose payroll is roughly one-fifth of the Yankees' but whose heart seems every bit as big.

And now, having made up nine games in the wild-card race since Sept. 4, you've got to figure the Rays believe the toughest part of their road to a world championship is behind them.

"I would say this makes them dangerous," Robinson Cano said. "We know they got a young team but they can do a lot of damage and they proved that the last three days. But we don't have to face them in the first round. Let's see how they do against Texas."

Indeed, both teams have work to do before they can even start to think about a rematch. First, the Yankees have to get past the Detroit Tigers and the formidable Justin Verlander, and the Rays have to overcome the Texas Rangers, and the possibility of a post-euphoria letdown, in their respective division series.

But having watched these teams go head-to-head this season and this series -- they finished up splitting 18 games -- you've also got to figure at least one of them would prefer to avoid the other in the next round.

"This doesn't tell me anything new," Rodriguez said. "Joe Maddon always has his guys ready. They play 27 outs. Longoria had a magical night for him and his team. They're a very dangerous team because they have very good pitching and they're very athletic."

Price did not pitch well Wednesday night or, truthfully, at any time against the Yankees this season. But James Shields has, and so did Jeremy Hellickson, and there's not a person in either clubhouse who doesn't believe Price has the ability to come up with a great game against them yet.

"You're looking at a team that was down seven runs in the eighth inning," Jeter said, with more than a little wonder in his voice. "And then everything changed. It was bizarre."

"They're a very good team; we knew that going in," Girardi said. "We tried to close it out. We had a seven-run lead and I went to guys who had experience, who have done the job for me before, and we didn't get it done."

In one sense, the Yankees accomplished one mission over the past three days in St. Petersburg: They rid themselves of the potential menace of the Boston Red Sox for this October.

But in doing so they helped build a new menace -- one that, unlike the fading Red Sox, seems to be getting stronger and more confident.

Now the Yankees' best chance may lie in hoping that someone else does unto Tampa Bay what the Yankees did unto Boston.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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