NEW YORK — Sure, it’s only mid-ish May.
Yes, they still have 13 games left against the Yankees, and 118 overall. Clearly, being a half-game back is nothing. Absolutely, there is still, as they like to say, a lot that can happen.
But if there is a takeaway from the first two series between the teams, played on back-to-back weekends, it’s that the Rays don’t quite measure up, losing four of the six. And, that they are capable of making that difference look really stark when they make the kind of mess they did in Sunday’s 13-5 embarrassment.
“It’s because of who the Yankees are; they’re a really good team,’’ said veteran pitcher Charlie Morton, who got the Rays off to a bad start. “They’re going to be right there in the division, and that’s where we want to be. That’s why it’s a hard pill to swallow.
“It’s not necessarily where we are in the division, a game back or tied or whatever. It’s more you want to have the kind of series against these kind of teams where you can see where you stand, where you stack up against them.’’
Thus far, not very well.
“It’s going to be a battle all year; this is what you ask for when you play the best teams,’’ centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “They came out victorious once again. They’ve beat us two series out of two this year.
“It’s another eye-opener for us, or call it whatever you want to call it. It’s just like, ‘Hey, don’t be satisfied because we’re in these games, we’ve got to win these games.’ We’ve got to find better ways to do that.’’
The first two games this past weekend were tight and tense, the Yankees rallying for a walkoff win Friday in the ninth, the Rays coming through in the 11th on Saturday. Sunday started that way, 5-5 into the sixth, then the Rays (27-17) piled up the mistakes in one of their ugliest innings of the year.
• seven Yankees runs;
• a Rays-record-tying five walks in the inning, including two with the bases loaded by Diego Castillo and Ryne Stanek;
• four hits allowed, three with two outs that scored runs;
• two misplays not scored errors but costing the Rays runs — Castillo missing a ground ball and shortstop Willy Adames bouncing a throw. Plus, first baseman Ji-Man Choi failing to catch a popup.
“It got pretty hairy pretty quick,’’ Stanek said.
Manager Kevin Cash spread the blame between the defense, which has been up and down, and the rare bad day by what has been the majors’ best pitching staff.
In addition to the plays Castillo and Adames didn’t make in the sixth, Yandy Diaz booted a grounder to third with two outs in the fourth, leading to Aaron Hicks’ two-run homer that tied it. Hicks’ blow came an inning after a three-run shot from Brandon Lowe, his team-high 10th, had put the Rays up 5-3.
“We made three errors that accounted for a lot of runs,’’ Cash said. “Ground ball to third, ground ball to short and a ground ball back to Diego that gave a good team opportunities to capitalize, and they did. They capitalized on every single one of them.’’
The Rays were complicit, especially in the sixth. It started somewhat benignly, Brett Gardner’s infield hit on the ball that ticked off Castillo’s glove, then a walk to No. 9 hitter Clint Frazier.
After a popped-up bunt, Castillo, who got three outs with a runner on third in the fifth, walked Hicks to load the bases and Luke Voit to force in a run, running his pitch count to 32.
“We asked a lot of Diego,’’ Cash said.
“I was trying to do the same thing I did the inning before, but things didn’t go the way they were supposed to,’’ Castillo said, via translator Manny Navarro.
The Rays turned next to Ryne Stanek, a high-leverage opportunity for their usual opener and coming on the one-year anniversary of the team’s first use of the pitching strategy.
That didn’t go well at all.
He bounced a pitch that catcher Travis d’Arnaud scrambled for and got an out at the plate. But then Stanek fell behind and semi-intentionally walked Gary Sanchez to reload the bases and unintentionally walked Kendrys Morales to score another run.
“When you get in those situations, you have to establish some type of strike zone that you’re willing to attack,’’ Cash said. “He just didn’t have it (Sunday) to do that.’’
Stanek said his command wasn’t good, and he feels a little different in those situations than opening because he doesn’t get many such opportunities.
The defensive mistakes followed. Choi didn’t catch Gleyber Torres’ popup he thought was going to hit the screen and then Adames fielded Torres’ new-life grounder and bounced the throw, making it 8-5.
“Some close pitches just missing, you have some unfortunate things happen and the game kind of got out of control pretty quick there,’’ Stanek said.
Casey Sadler took over and just made it worse, giving up four more runs on two doubles.
“They were just better throughout the weekend,’’ Kiermaier said, “and they deserved to win.’’
The Rays’ challenge is making sure when the teams meet again next month, they don’t let the Yankees make a habit of it.
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.