- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Six months after the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays dropped the curtain on the 2011 season with one of the best, and most intense, baseball games played all year, they raised the curtain on the 2012 season with the best game played so far this season.
Small sample size, I know. But judging off the last couple of meetings between these two teams, this might be shaping up as a better rivalry than -- dare we say it? -- the Yankees and Red Sox.
For the past two seasons, the Yankees and Rays have been the class of the AL East, the Red Sox the show horse in a three-horse field.
And the way they played one another in Game 1 of the 2012 season seemed more like Game 163 of 2011, or, in the words of Humphrey Bogart at the end of "Casablanca," the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Or at least, its resumption.
"What a beautiful game," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, which is easy for him to say since it was his team that rallied for two runs in the ninth inning off Mariano Rivera to turn what seemed headed for heartbreaking defeat into enthralling victory.
"Deflating," was the word Joe Girardi used, and why not? His team had battled back from a 4-0 first-inning deficit, due largely to a decision he made, to take a one-run lead to where he wanted it, in the ninth inning in the hands of Rivera.
The fact that it ended badly for the Yankees -- Rivera not only got beat, but hit hard, by Desmond Jennings, Ben Zobrist and finally, Carlos Pena -- did not obscure the fact that this was one whale of a ballgame between two very evenly matched ballclubs. And the good news is, we will do it 17 more times before the final chapter of this season is written.
"How about the difference between a spring training game and a regular-season game?" Maddon said. "Wasn't that obvious tonight? From the very first inning, it felt like we were in the middle of the season heading into October. That's a tribute to both teams right there."
And to both managers, who managed as intensely as if this was the seventh game of the American League Championship Series, where we just might find these two teams six months from now.
Maddon and Girardi pulled out every trick they could think of, left no statistical matchup unscrutinized and no page of the loose-leaf unread.
Not every move was a good one -- in fact, come to think of it, some of them were pretty questionable -- but every move was clearly predicated on winning this game as if it was not the first game of the year, but the most important game of the year.
"I think everybody looks forward to this day when you're going through spring training and you're going through the winter," Girardi said. "It will be more business as usual tomorrow."
For these two teams, this was business as usual. They closed the show last year with a dogfight of a three-game series swept by the Rays, the last one going a nail-biting 12 innings and a mind-numbing 4 hours, 54 minutes, and they seem to have picked up this year right where they left off.
Obviously, in the final analysis, each game is as important as any other and a team can just as well lose the pennant on Opening Day as it can on the last day of the season. So if a game is worth winning in September or October, it's worth winning in April, and the chess game Girardi and Maddon were playing reflected that reality.
"It was a good four-hour game," Girardi said. "We're back. Nothing's changed."
The machinations started early, when Girardi's binders told him that it was worth having his ace, CC Sabathia, walk the comparatively weak-hitting Sean Rodriguez to load the bases for the dangerous Carlos Pena, in the very first inning of the season.
His reasons were multiple -- Rodriguez is a righty, Pena is a lefty, Rodriguez a .286 hitter versus CC, Pena just .119 -- but the logic was suspect, and it blew up in his face when Pena crushed a 3-2 pitch into the right-field bleachers, some 428 feet away, to give the Rays an early 4-0 lead.
"I felt good about CC getting him out, but it didn't work out," Girardi said. "He got behind in the count."
Pena was as shocked as anyone in The Trop when the Yankees manager so generously allowed him the opportunity to pick up four quick RBIs. "I was like, 'Whoa, they're walking Sean to get to me?'" he said. "But after you get past the initial shock, it's time to get back to business. Next thing you know, we're circling the bases and we have a nice lead."
Then, it was Maddon's turn to get into the act. First, he had Rodriguez, his No. 5 hitter, lay down a sacrifice bunt with runners on first and third in the fifth, which looked to be a crucial waste of an out when Sabathia struck out Pena and retired Elliot Johnson to end the inning.
Maddon outdid himself three innings later when, with the Rays trailing 6-5, he twice put the suicide squeeze on with Rodriguez at third and Jose Molina at bat. The first time, Molina must have missed the sign, because he swung away and nearly killed the charging Rodriguez. The second time, on a 1-2 pitch, Molina bunted foul, allowing David Robertson to complete his patented Houdini routine by striking out Matt Joyce for the fourth time in the game.
Girardi, of course, wasn't finished, and when Rivera allowed hits to the first two batters he faced -- Jennings lined his cutter for a single on a 1-2 pitch and Zobrist tripled into the left-field gap to tie the game -- he had his closer, who is only the greatest to ever play his position, intentionally walk Longoria and Luke Scott in succession to load the bases.
Then, things really got weird. He pulled right-fielder Nick Swisher, shifted Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson to left-center and right-center and inserted Eduardo Nunez as a fifth infielder.
Mo fell behind 3-1 but came back to strike out Rodriguez. Then, he got ahead of Pena 1-2, but could only watch helplessly as Pena scorched one over Gardner's head to the base of the wall for the game-winning hit.
"I love the way Joe Maddon goes about his business," said Pena, who rejoined the Rays as a free agent after spending a season with the Chicago Cubs. "Joe is one of those guys who is not afraid to try new things. Today you saw a couple of things that people would never expect us to even try."
You've got to believe Maddon tried those things because the opponent was the Yankees, and Girardi did the same because he was playing the Rays.
This rivalry may not have the history or the backbiting mean-spiritedness of the Yankees-Red Sox tilts, or the hatred between the fan bases, but for quality of play, Yankees-Rays matches up pretty darned well. (And I did hear fewer Yankees fans in the Trop and a few more obscene chants directed at the visitors than in previous years.)
The Rays are young and quick with an excellent young pitching staff; the Yankees older, more experienced, more powerful. Each's strengths seem to dovetail with the other's weaknesses, and each team is managed by a smart fellow who is sometimes too smart for his own, and his team's, good.
And each side really seems to enjoy playing, and beating, the other.
"We get on top, they come back, we come back," Maddon said. "I really appreciated that game of baseball played by both sides."
And the best part is, we get to do it all over again Saturday night.
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