ST. PETERSBURG -- Sunday afternoon started out magnificently for the Rays, with Yankees hitters swinging through Blake Snell fastballs, curveballs and changeups like Bugs Bunny corkscrewing himself into the dirt.
He was lights-out.
Then the lights went out.
And after the sellout crowd at Tropicana Field looked to those catwalks in the sky for any sign of light, the Rays were handed a dark dose of reality in their 7-1 loss to the division-rival Yankees.
In Snell’s first time through the Yankees order, just two batters put balls in play. In retiring the first nine hitters he faced, he struck out seven, and six of those came consecutively. But a 30-pitch fifth inning that nearly doubled his pitch count -- and Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka’s quick work of the Rays -- led to an early hook for Snell.
A 43-minute power outage delay halted play in the ninth, and when baseball resumed, most of the announced crowd of 25,025 had left for brighter pastures, and the Yankees plated four runs off Rays reliever Austin Pruitt.
The Rays (24-15) haven’t lost many series this season, but dropped two out of three in their first against the Yankees (24-16), allowing the Bronx Bombers to leave town just a half-game back of Tampa Bay for first place in the AL East.
Many more head-to-head opportunities await in this marathon of a season-- as early as next weekend in The Bronx -- and Sunday’s loss was a lesson in patience in more ways than one.
The second time through the order, the Yankees bats were much more patient against Snell, working his pitch count up, and in the fifth, back-to-back two-out doubles by No. 8 hitter Austin Romine and No. 9 hitter Mike Tauchman, followed by D.J. LeMahieu's tack-on RBI single, made a scoreless game a 2-0 deficit.
“He was pitching like the Cy Young Award winner.” Romine said. “We knew he was going to be tough, but then boom, we’re able to string a couple at bats against him and Masa took it from there.”
The Rays didn’t do anything to give Snell a breather after the fifth, going down in order on just seven pitches in the bottom half of the inning, and Snell was forced back onto the mound. He wouldn’t last the sixth, pulled from the game with two outs and a runner on second.
“On days like this when I feel good, I’ve got to execute better,” Snell said of his fifth inning. “I can’t let things get away like that. I have to keep fighting back and holding us in games. With me not being able to do that and let the fifth inning happen, I know I’m better than that. I cant allow that to happen. It’s frustrating. It’s me not pitching.”
Snell, who had recorded more swings and misses than any pitcher in baseball this season, recorded a career-high 26 swings and misses in his 96-pitch outing. Snell finished with 12 strikeouts.
Besides that seven-pitch fifth, Tanaka retired the Rays on nine pitches in the fourth and just pitch pitches in the seventh. Thirteen of his 21 outs came on three pitches or fewer.
“They collectively had better at bats throughout the day,” centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “You have to tip your hat to Tanaka. He nasty. He’s a wizard up there. He has you off balance all the time.”
Asked whether Snell would have benefitted from the Rays offense trying to work deeper at bats, Rays manager Kevin Cash thought it was good his hitters went after Tanaka early in the count. The Rays’ only run came on Austin Meadows’ solo homer in the sixth.
“I’m not going to ask guys to go up there and take,” Cash said. "To me, that’s not the right approach. If you get a pitch you think you can handle, do everything you can to hit it hard. But that speaks volumes as to how good he was. His split was mid thigh high and diving to the bottom. We saw some guys chasing some pitches, hitting them off the end of the bat.
This Yankees lineup isn’t nearly as treacherous as it is when it’s healthy, but the Yankees chased Snell from the game by working at bats and fouling off pitches, showing the plate patience that’s a benchmark of division heavyweights like New York and Boston.
After the Yankees extended the lead to 3-1 in the eighth on a Ryne Stanek wild pitch, the Rays put the tying run in scoring position with one out in the bottom of the eighth against lefty Zack Britton, but Britton struck out Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Diaz to end the threat.
The Trop's newly installed LED field lighting went out in the top of the ninth, and the video boards and sound system followed.
The delay prompted most fans to leave early, but those who stayed of the heavy pro-Yankees crowd saw New York put the Rays away. Thairo Estrada, who was at the plate when the lights went out, homered to right. Gio Urshela’s double scored two more and a Brett Gardner sacrifice fly made it 7-1.
The Rays have lost five of six at home against the Yankees and Red Sox this season. Boston swept the Rays at the Trop last month.
“This was a tough loss, a tough series,” Meadows said. “This one and the Red Sox one back a little while ago. We had really close games. This one got away from us at the end there. ... We’re only going to bounce back. We’re looking forward to getting up to New York soon. Definitely going to be a competition throughout the whole year.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.