ST. PETERSBURG — The $2 tickets were gone, but the main attraction was here, judging by the crowd at Tropicana Field. The Yankees and the home runs they rode in on were in town for probably the Rays’ biggest Fourth of July game and series in franchise history.
The Yankees look bigger at the moment.
Entering Thursday, the plucky Rays were 6½ games back of suddenly big, bad New York in the AL East. But the Rays are closer to Montreal than they are to the Yankees, really, after New York took the series opener 8-4 in 10 innings before a strident half-and-half Rays-Yankees turnout of 21,974, a house divided against itself.
Question: If the Rays leave, the Yankees become our team again, right?
The Yankees are apparently staying put in New York, despite their intercontinental mayhem in London, sweeping two games from the Red Sox last week while scoring a softball-like 29 runs. The only holdup was Aaron Judge being detained at the London airport until he could produce proof that he was not Big Ben.
It all went away so fast for the Rays. One moment they were in first place, then they blinked. The Yankees, despite being besieged by injuries to start the season, went on a tear, including a three-game sweep of the Rays at Yankee Stadium in mid June. New York is 15-2 since June 15, while the Rays are 8-11. The Yankees are an AL-best 33-13 since May 12.
“I don’t know, we just took off,” Judge said.
And at 56-29, the Yankees might just be warming up. Along the way during that 15-2 stretch, the Yankees set a fairly sick major-league record with home runs in 31 consecutive games, a streak that ended just the other night in the first game of the Subway Series against the Mets.
True, New York’s 142 homers are only the fourth most in the dinger-crazed majors. On the other hand, John Sterling, 81, the iconic Yankees radio announcer, is taking a short break this weekend after 30 years and 5,058 consecutive broadcasts. The Iron Larynx. Guess you can say, “It is high, it is far, it is gone!” only so many times.
This is a different kind of Yankees dominance. Help, hits and home runs are coming from every direction. Infielder Gleyber Torres has 19 homers and 50 RBIs. Outfielder Brett Gardner has 12 homers, more than the previously injured Judge and the recently reinjured Giancarlo Stanton combined (seven). The team has been without ace Luis Severino and bullpen cog Dellin Betances. And yet the wins keep coming. One day the Yankees are going to wake up completely healthy and it’s going to be scary.
“I don’t think we’ve been at our best yet,” said shortstop Didi Gregorius, who missed six weeks while coming off Tommy John surgery.
“We just put someone else in there,” said Judge, who missed 53 games with an oblique injury. “We just keep going. I saw that in spring training. On the road, we’d just send a few regulars. We’d send Double-A, Triple-A guys, and we were still scoring nine runs.”
“It starts with we have good players, and not just the first 25 guys on a roster,” said manager Aaron Boone, who is on pace to be the first manager, even in Yankees history, to start with consecutive 100-win seasons. “You look around the room during spring training and there are 60-plus guys in there, and you set the expectation: ‘Hey, you might not think it right now, but there may be a chance that you impact our club this year.’ That happened more than we expected or even wanted, especially early in the season, and guys prepared with that in mind, and as a result we got, I think, a lot of really good contributions from a lot of people.”
No one typifies the new kind of Yankees winning formula than infielder DJ LeMahieu, an All-Star selection. New York could have entered the offseason Manny Machado sweepstakes, but instead it signed low-key, 2016 NL batting champ LeMahieu from Colorado. He has been nothing short of sensational, including an AL-leading .342 average with 12 homers and 61 RBIs. It was LeMahieu, who broke the tie at 3 Thursday with a two-run single in the 10th.
“He’s been the MVP,” Judge said .
Did we mention that the Rays tried to get LeMahieu in the offseason?
That’s not to say the Yankees haven’t resisted being the Yankees.
Even with all those homers, they recently piled on by trading for slugger Edwin Encarnacion, who hit his league-leading 25th home run Thursday against the Rays, a team that reportedly had been interested in acquiring him, too.
What the Yankees really need in the name of winning it all is another arm. Maybe Mets pitcher Zach Wheeler, who might be in the Yankees’ wheelhouse at the trade deadline.
It’s hard to believe sometimes, but the Yankees haven’t won a world championship in 10 years. Which reminds us, happy birthday to The Boss, late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who was born on the Fourth. The 2019 Yankees are on the case, Boss.
The Rays are a solid wild-card contender and then some. But then there are the Yankees. I’m not sure if they are going to run away as Boston did last season on the way to a world championship, but this has that feeling.
“We’re still getting our pieces back and getting back to full strength,” Judge said.
The Rays will scrape. But the Yankees will, too. They proved it while all those big names were on the injured list. And they received good news Thursday. Infielder Gio Urshela, who has been among the indispensables for the Yankees (.307), returned to the team after an MRI exam revealed he had not injured his posterior Wednesday against the Mets.
Urshela had been circling the bases, running out a home run.
The Yankees are back to being a pain in the rear.