ST. PETERSBURG — The easiest way for the Rays to close the gap on the American League East-leading Yankees is to beat them head to head.
And with eight games against them in a stretch of 12, bridging the upcoming All-Star break, the Rays certainly have that opportunity.
But they’re going to have to stop making it so hard on themselves by giving the Yankees so many extra chances.
Thursday’s 8-4 loss in 10 innings was another frustrating example, the end result as much a product of what the Rays didn’t do to help themselves as what they did to aide the Yankees.
“That offense over there, that lineup, that team is too good to give them opportunities,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “They’re going to make the most of it when they’re given to them, and they did.’’
The Rays certainly should know by now, having seen their bullpen let game after game get away in losing eight of the first 10 against the Yankees. Overall, the Rays are 50-38 and 7½ games back.
“They capitalize,’’ Cash said. “That’s how it’s felt for this season for sure against them. It’s the sign of a really good team. They’ve got a knack for coming up and getting the big hit. When they need one, they get two. When they need two, they get four. It’s a good team. And, yes, those little things add up. And the extra 90 feet here and there makes everything flow for them a little bit.’’
There was a long list of transgressions Thursday as the teams celebrated the holiday before a typically split-allegiance Tropicana Field crowd of 21,974, with patriotic pageantry including members of the U.S. Special Operations Command rappel team making its way down and delivering a flag from the catwalks. For variety, there was an onfield proposal between two Air Force members and a celebrity in the stands, actor Hugh Jackman popping in to cheer on the visitors before his Tampa show tonight.
Most egregious, especially after the Rays had just scored two in the ninth off closer Aroldis Chapman to tie it at 3 and left the winning run at third, was reliever Oliver Drake opening the 10th with a pair of walks, to Gio Urshela and pinch-hitter Aaron Judge, who battled through 10 pitches.
“Extremely frustrating,’’ Drake said. “When you do that, you don’t really give your team a chance, putting two guys on for free. That can come back to hurt you. Unfortunately it did. Our offense did a heck of a job battling back there off Chapman. Really frustrating to do that.’’
Cash had heard it, and seen it, enough this season.
“Walks,’’ Cash said. “Leadoff walk. Walk, walk. … We should know by now that those walks come back and they get us, and they certainly did again today.’’
Compounding the problem, the Rays then misplayed a bunt by Brett Gardner. He took advantage of their shifted positioning and put the bunt in a good spot, between third and the mound, that Drake tried but couldn’t make a play on.
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Cash said it was third baseman Yandy Diaz’s play, that he should “come get the ball and just take the out (at first).’’ But Diaz, who broke back toward third, said through translator Manny Navarro that he didn’t think he could have made the play: “We got a little indecisive with the bunt and we couldn’t get an out.’’
All that giving cost the Rays because of what happened next. Cash turned to Emilio Pagan, whom he was saving to face hit machine DJ LeMahieu. LeMahieu, whom the Rays had wanted to sign, singled hard through the drawn-in infield to score two, and an out later, Gary Sanchez launched a Pagan slider into the party deck well above leftfield that Statcast seemed to shortchange significantly with an estimated distance of 461 feet.
“The bullpen and that last inning has been a little bit of a challenge here as of late,’’ Cash said. “And it really was no different today.’’
“When you keep giving them chances to take advantage of a situation like that, most teams take advantage at some point,’’ Pagan said. “They’re an ultratalented roster, obviously, so it’s frustrating.’’
The Rays’ mistakes weren’t limited to the last inning. In the third, a passed ball by catcher Travis d’Arnaud and a wild pitch by starter Yonny Chirinos (and a check-swing call on Aaron Hicks) factored in the first two Yankees runs.
A baserunning mistake by Tommy Pham in the third, as he was running on the pitch and didn’t get out of the way of Austin Meadows’ grounder, hurt their bid to get one back.
The one encouraging takeaway for the Rays was the rally in the ninth against Chapman, the first runs they have scored against him in 20 appearances as a Yankee, though he helped with two wild pitches. Joey Wendle had a big hit and Nate Lowe a creative slide at the plate.
The Rays know what they have to do against the Yankees. And not do.
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.