The Rays went into Tuesday’s game in New York, the opener of what manager Kevin Cash openly called “a big series,” with a trio of goals.
One was to do better against Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka, who typically tends to have his way with them.
Check, as they chased Tanaka one batter into the fifth inning by scoring six runs, with Brandon Lowe’s three-run homer the biggest blow.
Another was to see continued progress and solid work from starter Blake Snell.
Check, as Snell worked five innings, allowing three runs on a pair of home runs while throwing a season-high 92 pitches.
Third was to reverse their recent struggles at Yankee Stadium, having gone 13-35 over the last five seasons.
And check, as they scored a 6-3 victory, dealing the Yankees their first home loss of the season after 10 wins, and narrowing their American League East lead to 1-1/2 games. It was the the fourth time the Rays (15-9) beat the Yankees (16-7) in five games this season.
“It’s a big win, for sure,” Cash said afterward from New York.
Tanaka had been consistently tough against the Rays, earlier this season and annually — posting an impressive 10-4, 3.07 record in 19 starts, with 125 strikeouts in 120-1/3 innings — and often the same way, getting them to beat balls into the ground or flail at them.
So the Rays tried something a little different Tuesday.
“Overall, just really encouraged by the entire offensive approach,” Cash said. “Masahiro is a guy that’s been really tough for us. He’s good. We adjusted a little bit, we were ready for some off-speed pitches. And I think being ready for those off-speed pitches, handling them a little bit, maybe allowed Brandon to get a fast ball there maybe he wouldn’t have normally and be able to hit it for the three-run homer.”
Lowe’s blast continued what has been a torrid streak. He won the American Player of the Week award for hitting .448 with four homers, 10 RBIs and a 1.500 OPS, and he took a good step toward another, with his eighth homer overall.
Cash called his performance “pretty special,” and Austin Meadows introduced him in the postgame Zoom interview as “the man, the myth.”
What are the Rays seeing from him?
“What aren’t you seeing from Brandon Lowe?” Snell said. “That man is going crazy. It’s a lot of fun to watch. He’s on right now. He’s swinging at the right pitches and doing damage. What an amazing talent he is. ... It’s pretty amazing to see what he’s been able to do so far this season and what he’s going to do. He’s a special talent.”
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The Rays got a go-ahead single from Michael Perez and a fifth-inning leadoff homer from Meadows that ended Tanaka’s night as they rapped eight hits off him and only struck out twice.
In those previous 19 starts Tanaka made against the Rays, only twice did he allow six or more runs, both early in the 2017 season.
Snell was coming off a season-best performance last Wednesday in Boston, working five shutout innings on 70 pitches, and both he and the Rays were hoping he would continue it Tuesday, with a plan to work six innings or 85 pitches, whichever came first.
Snell said spending all of Monday’s off day in the team hotel — save for an approved quick step out with pitching coach Kyle Snyder to play catcher in some nearby green space — made for tough prep. “Being locked down in a hotel and restricted from life that definitely makes it harder,’' he said. “Didn’t really feel as good as I wanted to feel.’'
But he did have a unique way to get ready before the game, making his adjustment for the glaring absence of fans at Yankee Stadium.
“Here you’re used to someone saying like, ‘You suck,’ or something like that,” Snell explained. “So in the bullpen today I made sure I told myself, “You suck Snell.’ I said that to myself just so it felt real, authentic, like I was playing the Yankees. So I did that and laughed.”
He didn’t have the cleanest of outings, allowing leadoff walks in the first two innings, a single to start the third and two-out homers in the fourth (to Gary Sanchez, the fifth for the Yankees catcher in 20 career at-bats off Snell) and fifth (to Luke Voit, after a single by No. 9 hitter Thairo Estrada).
As a result, Snell was done after five innings, though he did get expand his pitch count to 92, and left with a 6-3 lead.
Snell said “there were a lot of things I was upset with personally,’' such as not commanding his fastball or having his delivery timed up, but said they are things he can “clean up” before his next start, and was pleased to make it throw five innings and leave with a lead.
And the bullpen found a way to get the job done, with a parade of Pete Fairbanks, Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson and Chaz Roe.
Castillo had the diciest situation, loading the bases with a walk, a single and a one-out hit batsman in the seventh, and then escaping by striking out Luke Voit and getting a ground ball from Gio Usrshela that third baseman Yoshi Tsutsugo made a good play on.
“Give (Castillo) a lot of credit for staying composed and making some big pitches,” Cash said.
The Rays didn’t have any specific reason for their recent struggles at Yankee Stadium, though several did note they would enjoy the quiet of having no fans compared to the usual cacophony.
Adding to the degree of difficulty was the Yankees’ 10-0 home start and their streak being undefeated over their last 27 home series, going 24-0-3 since April 16, 2019.
“We’ve been beat here, so anytime to come in here and start a series off with a win is nice,’' Cash said. “We’re still behind them, we know that. They’re a very, very talented team that’s nicked up right now. But they’ve got a ton of depth and they’re really, really good. They’re tough outs 1-9, their pitching staff is tremendous. We’re fortunate that we started this series with a win and look to come right back and put pressure on them tomorrow.‘'