ST. PETERSBURG — It was a reasonable question.
It might have popped into the heads of another Tropicana Field sellout crowd as fans waited out a power outage, waited and waited, 43 minutes, before the Yankees won 7-1, won for the second time in three days over the local nine.
Have the lights already begun to dim on this Rays season?
Never mind that the Rays still lead the AL East, as they have since March 31. Never mind that it remains preposterously early in the season, not even a quarter into it. Never mind that I looked for the trap door all last season and wound up being wowed by 90 Rays wins.
It’s never too early to worry.
The Yankees have been decimated by injuries but nonetheless, a win Monday moves them into a tie with the idle Rays atop the division. The Red Sox have awoken from their deep slumber to win nine of 11, pulling within three games of first.
The Yankees have been tested. The Sox have been tested.
Now it’s the Rays’ turn.
It’s their turn as they depart on a short trip that begins Tuesday with two games at the Miami Jeters before a return bout with the Yankees this weekend in the Bronx. Suddenly, injuries have jumped out, to catchers Mike Zunino and Michael Perez and pitcher Tyler Glasnow.
Bats have cooled. Can doubt be far behind?
We knew all along this would be a grinding kind of summer. Well, summer has come early.
“You could probably start to say it’s trending in that direction,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We lost two catchers who know our pitchers well. … And then, with Glasnow going down, that’s a lot. So, off-day (Monday), reset, play good baseball in Miami, but I think it’s fair to say we talk about our depth, our versatility. We need to have it show up now.”
But there are troubling signs. The Yankees series began with a sloppy 4-3 Rays loss, making them 1-7 in one-run games, just the kind of record that will eventually destroy a season. Whenever the Rays have made the playoffs in their history, be it 2008, 2010, 2011 or 2013, they’ve won more than they’ve lost in one-run games. I’m just saying.
After a good effort Saturday to even the series, saving a chance for a Sunday statement, they sent all the wrong signals at all the wrong times, despite reigning AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell being on his form, with just two earned runs and 12 strikeouts, including six in a row early.
But Snell also ate up his start, which lasted only into the sixth, with a 30-pitch fourth that saw New York jump to a 2-0 lead. It was no match for a generally seamless Sunday from Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka, who threw seven innings of one-run, five-hit ball, which included a nine-pitch fourth, a seven-pitch fifth and a four-pitch sixth.
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The Yankees, who came in as an MRI album, left emboldened. Then there were the Rays, who appeared out of sorts.
“We’ve had our backs against the wall a little bit. We’ve had some guys go down, called up some guys,” said centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who was part of Sunday’s hitless brigade.
“It looks like we’ve made more moves in the last four days than we have all year,” Cash said.
This could be a crucial moment in the season. And the Rays know it. The Yankees and Red Sox aren’t going anywhere but up. Cash thinks this is where the 90 wins last season might pay off.
“I think it’s going to help,” he said. “There’s no doubt that we have challenges ahead of us. But I’m not one, we’re not ones, to overplay it.”
“I still think this might be somewhat of a blessing in disguise because once you think you have everything figured out, this game is very humbling,” Kiermaier said. “It’s going to be a tight race all year. We’re going to be chasing them, they’re going to be chasing us, it’s just going to be a lot of ups and downs throughout the year.
Rays pitching has been stellar, especially the starters, behind the triple threat of Glasnow, Snell and Charlie Morton, who starts Tuesday in Miami. But this team, and maybe its confidence, has taken a hit with Glasnow and the people who normally catch him going on the IL. Any baseball season is always about how you answer questions as you go along. Someone will have to answer. Someone will have to step up, especially at the plate.
“We just need our mojo back,” Kiermaier said. “We’ll be just fine. It’s early on, and we had really good stretch, and now we’ve had our backs against the wall a couple of times. That’s baseball. That’s the course of a season. Tough people last longer than tough times.”
It’s already time to flip that switch.
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.