NEW YORK — The Rays arrived at Yankee Stadium to the sight of a familiar foe in a new uniform. The league’s leading home run hitter, Edwin Encarnacion, played his first game in pinstripes on Monday, an early ante by the first-place Yankees to hold off the rest of the American League East.
The Rays came to New York trailing the Yankees by just a half game, but the Yankees bulked up over the weekend by acquiring Encarnacion, one of the top sluggers the division has seen over the past decade from his days in Toronto, in a trade with Seattle in the midst of a career year.
Over the next few days, the Yankees should get more reinforcements as Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge will join Encarnacion in the middle of baseball’s most dangerous batting order.
“I know we are going to hit a lot of home runs, and we’re going to win a lot of games, too,” Encarnacion said before Monday’s series opener, a 3-0 New York victory.
Inside the Rays clubhouse, the move wasn’t surprising, though the timing — six weeks before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline — suggested to them that this is just the beginning of the Yankees upgrades.
"It just seems like they're never satisfied," Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. "And they're probably not done yet. These guys, anytime they can make a statement or take the league by storm, they really come out and say, 'We're here to win.'
"We know what goes on around the league. Yeah, the Yankees got a lot better. But it doesn’t change our mind-set. We’re going to try to win a series and say, ‘Hey, they can acquire whoever the heck they want, we’re going to go out there and give it our best because we know we can beat them and we’re going to go out there and try to prove that.’”
But come gametime, the Rays were handcuffed by Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, the loss offering a reminder that what the Yankees just acquired — a proven fear-striking veteran slugger — might be exactly what the Rays’ lineup is missing.
This current group of Rays has its share of quality hitters. They can hit the ball hard and far, but they seem to go cold as a group. And against Tanaka, who throwsoffspeed pitches nearly 70 percent of the time, the Rays’ bats were swinging through air on Monday night.
Tanaka threw a complete-game two-hitter, striking out 10 and walking one.
“We’ve got to do a better job of making some adjustments, not being able to change some things up, some routines, whatever when you walk up to the plate,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "Because whatever he’s doing and whatever we’re doing, it’s not working. We’re not getting guys on base. And he’s so efficient with his pitches to allow him to get that deep into the ballgame.''
In three starts against the Rays this season, Tanaka has allowed just one earned run over 22 innings and has 23 strikeouts and just one walk.
Rays right-hander Yonny Chirinos pitched well enough to win, but made two critical mistakes. He left a slider over the heart of the plate to D.J. LeMahieu that the Yankees third baseman sent over the left-centerfield fence for a two-run homer in the third. In the fifth, Chirinos left a sinker up to Cameron Maybin, who sent it into the leftfield stands for a solo homer.
“I’ve gone up against (Tanaka) twice this season and he’s another excellent pitcher," Chirinos said through interpreter Manny Navarro. "He gives me some motivation because if he pitches a clean inning, I want to do the same. Unfortunately, it hasn’t resulted in the way that I’ve wanted.”
With Monday’s loss, the Rays have lost three of their first four games at Yankee Stadium this season, including 14 straight series openers in the Bronx. They are 6-17 here since the beginning of the 2017 season and have lost 13 of 14 series at Yankee Stadium.
Tanaka induced 18 of his 23 swinging strikes off sliders and splitters — including eight strikeout pitches — and ended his night by retiring 15 straight.
“That’s part of the game,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “We’re going to go through these stretches. You just try to have quality at-bats and just try to turn those over. We’re a team that once momentum shifts, we’re going to get going. But it’s a long road trip. It’s just one game; we’re going to get them tomorrow.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.