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Tampa Bay Rays vs. Yankees: An October series whose time is due

Martin Fennelly: Long-time AL East rivals might finally meet in the playoffs. Oh, the joy of Choi!
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi (26) celebrates his game-winning solo walk-off home run with teammate Brandon Lowe as the Rays beat the New York Yankees 2-1 in 12th innings at Tropicana Field on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019 in St. Petersburg.
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi (26) celebrates his game-winning solo walk-off home run with teammate Brandon Lowe as the Rays beat the New York Yankees 2-1 in 12th innings at Tropicana Field on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 25, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Don’t start spreading the news, but it would be something if the Rays made the playoffs. It would be something more if they won the wild-card game. And it would be something truly grand it was followed by this:

The Yankees.

At long last, in the 22nd year of Rays history, the Yankees, in a playoff series.

Circle the wagons. Or the bases, at least as many times as the Yankees do.

They might even have to take the tarps off the seats in the upper deck at Tropicana Field.

Well …

Rays-Yankees. It could happen in about a week in the American League Division Series, provided the Rays get in and advance and the Yankees are the top seed. First came Tuesday night, the first of two between the teams at the Trop, the Yankees safe and sound with 102 wins and a major-league record 299 home runs, the Rays clinging to an idea of games in October, a must-win game.

They won a taut, tense affair 2-1 when that man, Ji-Man Choi, the pride of Incheon, lined a home run into the right-field seats in the bottom of the 12th inning. Choi celebrated by pretending to kick a soccer ball, or was it a field-goal try?

Who cares?

The Bucs are working Choi out today.

“I don’t know if I’m going to have a voice anymore if we keep doing this,” said Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who had homered to tie it 1-1 way back in the fifth inning. “We are a bunch of grown men and a moment like this happens and we look like little kids running out there.”

Another walk-off win. Another extra-innings win for the wonder boys.

The Rally Rays kept at it to stay a half-game ahead of Cleveland for the final wild-card spot.

Just as important, they beat the Yankees in what could be a prelude to a playoff match.

It could happen.

And it would be something.

Few teams in any sport bring their own spotlight like the Bombers.

"They set the standard," Rays manager Kevin Cash said before Tuesday’s game. "They’ve done it again this year. Just a good club. We’ve got to kind of find a way to feed of that energy that they bring in with them and use it to our advantage."

That they did just that across four exhausting hours of baseball Tuesday. The Rays went eyeball to eyeball with New York, which had beaten them soundly most of the season. They stared the Yankees down. They out-homered the record-setting Bombers. The bullpen outperformed the Yankees’ vaunted bullpen, at least by one pitch, the one that Choi hit out.

Rays-Yankees is an October series that has been a long time coming.

There have been thrills and spills along the way, like when the 1998 Yankees beat the expansion Rays like a drum. Like 2008, when a spring training melee between the teams ignited the upstart Rays to a World Series season. Like the crucial September series in 2010 that propelled the Rays to the playoffs. Like Derek Jeter’s 3,000th career hit on a home run off David Price.

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Even the last two years, the drama and accompanying yapping between the Rays and Yankees lefty CC Sabathia, who will not be getting retirement gifts from the Rays this series as a retiring Jeter once did. Sabathia, relegated to the bullpen, has been throwing at Rays and jawing at Cash and his players for going on two seasons. There is an intimidation factor there, true bullying and it will remain until the Rays stand up.

This series seemed as good a place to start as any.

The Rays stood up. Grown men ran around like little boys. Our man JI-Man, who hit a big homer to start the comeback Monday over the Red Sox, stood at his locker for media using a translator, though apparently he understands English very well. He also speaks fluent playoff race.

“It’s an awesome feeling,” Choi said with help.

Translation: The Rays didn’t back down.

This series seemed as good a place to start doing that.

The Yankees might be the enemy in no time, a snarling and suddenly petty bunch, epitomized by normally friendly Brett Gardner’s July baby-cakes bat banging in the dugout over balls and strikes calls. Throw in the fact that the Rays’ most dramatic win in 2019 came at Yankee Stadium, when Travis d’Arnaud’s third homer of the game brought them back to beat New York in the ninth inning.

Last time the Rays were in New York, a group of Yankees began playing catch in the outfield as the Rays took batting practice, clearly an attempt to punk the Rays. The Rays will have to do something.

This series seems like as good a time as any.

Imagine all that Rays-Yankees history piled into a five-game division series. I’d like the Rays’ chances better over seven games but wouldn’t count them out no matter what. A series against the Astros and their ungodly starting pitching is another matter.

Note: The Yankees had owned the Rays. They arrived in Tampa Bay 12-5 against the Rays this season, outscoring them 95-50. The Rays were a combined plus-145 runs against their other opponents. Rays pitchers have allowed a major-league low 176 home runs, but 32 against the Yankees. The Rays entered Tuesday night having led in eight straight games against New York but were only 3-5 in those games.

But Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who has won 202 games in two seasons in New York, thinks history is bunk when it comes to the playoffs. He sees the Rays as a postseason threat if they play into October.

"Run prevention," Boone said. "They’re hard to score against. They have some really talented starting pitchers and a number of good arms that can match up in situations and a lineup that has some versatility, some power and some speed, a lineup that’s a little right-left. It’s one of the best teams in the league in my view.

Said Cash, "They’ve done really, really well against us. But we’ve got to kind of move past that and find a way to win."

The Rally Rays did it again Tuesday.

And there might be more fun ahead.

“Thank you,” Ji-Man Choi said. “I’m tired.”

Who isn’t?

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly


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