ST. PETERSBURG — For savages, the Yankees sure seem sensitive. Maybe, in this age of social distancing, they need a virtual hug.
I’m joking of course, but baseball’s wealthiest players do seem to get riled up whenever they’re around those low-rent Rays.
If it isn’t CC Sabathia questioning the manhood of Rays players with an unkind description after being ejected for hitting a batter in 2018, it’s manager Aaron Boone telling an umpire his players are “(expletive) savages” after he was ejected for arguing balls and strikes against the Rays in 2019.
And then came this weekend, when the Rays cut two games off New York’s AL East lead by taking three out of four games, including Sunday’s 4-3 walkoff victory. On Saturday, Boone was ejected again (30 percent of his ejections as a manager are in Rays games) while the Yankees complained about high-and-tight pitches, even though the only batter hit during a doubleheader was Tampa Bay’s Joey Wendle.
Finally, on Sunday, the Yankees took exception when the Rays got a little snarky in the dugout, although Tampa Bay second baseman Brandon Lowe suggested it was New York that had gotten the taunting started.
“We did it back,” Lowe said, “and they didn’t like it.”
Oh yeah, this is about to get fun.
It’s not just that the Rays have six games in the Bronx in the next three weeks, it’s the possibility that New York and Tampa Bay could be side by side in a division race for the very first time. Not to mention the possibility of meeting in the postseason.
In some ways, it’s a classic David versus Goliath story, except the Yankees have the slingshot, too. They’ve got the payroll, they’ve got the pedigree, they’ve got the fancy spring training stadium in Tampa, and they’ve even got an ongoing love affair with a lot of fans in this market.
And what do the Rays have? Well, as of now, they seem to have New York’s attention.
It began a couple of years ago when the Yankees decided that Rays reliever Andrew Kittredge purposefully buzzed former catcher Austin Romine. That led to Sabathia plunking Jesus Sucre and gesturing toward the Rays dugout as he was led off the field.
“You (would) think they would move past it, as we have,’' Lowe said Sunday.
Except Yankees rightfielder Aaron Judge brought it up after Saturday’s game.
“You don’t usually forget stuff like that,” Judge said. “Then to continue to throw up and in, that’s tough. We’ve got a lot of big hitters up there, and we know they’re going to throw in, but to miss that far up and in, you’re going get a little barking from the dugout.”
“When it happens over and over again, yeah you raise an eyebrow and wonder what’s going on,” Yankees reliever Chad Green said. “I think our guys had every right to say something.”
Sure they do. And they had every right to apparently mock Rays pitchers from the Yankees dugout when things weren’t going well for Tampa Bay during the weekend. But they had to expect to hear similar taunts when James Paxton coughed up a 3-0 lead in the seventh inning Sunday after back-to-back homers by Mike Brosseau and Lowe.
And maybe that’s why the Yankees went mute after Michael Perez ended the afternoon with a walkoff single in the ninth, his first hit of the season and first RBI against a left-handed pitcher in two years.
Boone chalked it up to an intense series and voices carrying in an empty stadium. Paxton, who looked into the Rays dugout after he left the mound, later said he did not hear what was being said.
“I’m not sure, I didn’t hear anything specific,” Paxton said. “I just heard some jawing back and forth. You know, whatever. It’s competition. Guys are fired up. It is what it is.”
And what is it?
Well, the Yankees lost as many games in 72 hours as they had the previous two weeks combined. And their lead in the AL East just went from four games to two.
And maybe none of that will matter. The Rays, after all, have been inconsistent, and their starting pitching looks incredibly shaky with Yonny Chirinos out, Charlie Morton leaving Sunday’s game early and Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell struggling to throw more than three innings.
But it does seem to have the potential for fun.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.