ST. PETERSBURG — Kevin Kiermaier had reasons to want his Rays to play the Yankees in the American League Division Series.
The longest-tenured Rays player, who was drafted in 2010 and debuted in 2013, sees the best-of-five matchup that starts Monday in San Diego as many others do — an exciting one between two really good AL East teams loaded with talent who know each other well.
And have had a bit of a thing.
“With all the history that we’ve had the last couple years, it is what it is,” Kiermaier said Friday. "I’ve said it many times: they don’t like us, we don’t like them, and it’s going to continue to stay that way. It’s going to be a very fun, energetic, exciting (series). And I know each team is going to want to try to put it to the opposition. I know that for a fact.
“So it’s going to be two great teams playing against each other. I know our guys are really excited, we’re ready to go. So I’m very confident. And we plan on having the same thoughts once we get out west and expecting to win that series.''
That past is prologue, at least until first pitch Monday.
There have been some heated exchanges for the last several years, mostly due to inside pitches and hit batters.
The last time these teams were together at the start of September, Mike Brosseau hit two home runs in a Rays win to avenge Aroldis Chapman throwing a 100 mph pitch at his head the night before, the incident that sparked manager Kevin Cash’s now infamous quote about his “stable” of relievers.
“To be honest, what happened obviously happened, and I’m not going to say we forgot about that because we haven’t,” Kiermaier said. “It will just be another reason, another notch in the belt or chip on your shoulder, whatever you want, just to make it that much sweeter to try to beat those guys. And when you do it, it feels that much better.”
The Rays have had a lot to feel good about involving the Yankees this season, winning the season series 8-2 and finishing seven games ahead of them with an AL-best 40-20 record.
“We’re very happy with how things went throughout the regular season, especially that last game after the game before with the whole Brosseau thing and whatnot. We expected our guys to respond that game, and we did. And we we’ve done that all season,” Kiermaier said. From here on moving forward, we’re going to try to play our best baseball — good, clean, Rays baseball. That’s all we can ask for.
“I truly think whatever has happened up to this point might matter very little. When we go out there and step in between the white lines, it’s not like we’re going to sit here and think back about everything that went on three-four weeks ago. We know that we have to do our part and get ready, keep our focus at a very high level for each and every pitch, each and every inning, each and every game for us to try to try to beat those guys.”
Which is part of why Kiermaier wanted the matchup.
“I’m sure a lot of our guys are very excited, very eager, anxious, nervous … a lot of those same emotions that ... always creep in,” he said. For me personally, I’m very excited. I’m excited to play those guys once again. We start out (in the Wild Card Series) with the Blue Jays in division and once again we go right back to our division in the playoffs with the Yankees.
“But you’ve got to run through everyone to get where you want to be in the long run, and that’s what we plan on doing. We’ll see if we can back up what I’m saying. ... We’re ready to go. We’re feeling really good about ourselves. And we plan on keeping that swagger, that momentum heading out west, continue it there and then some.”,
Those feelings the Rays have for the Yankees can come out different ways. For the most part it’s been words this year, though there was the makings of a confrontation after Chapman threw at Brosseau.
“Football, you get a little bit more leeway of taking out some aggression on the opposition in a physical manner,” Kiermaier said. “But we play baseball, and we try to let our bats do the talking and our pitchers trying to let their pitches, their arsenal, their everything do the talking as well, trying to get those guys out. Baseball’s mostly chirping more than anything as far as altercations go. It’s the way it’s always been, always will be.”
There are other circumstances, and this could be one, on the biggest stage the Rays and Yankees have played on, with the highest stakes and most significant consequences.
“You’ve got two teams that care a lot about what they do out there on the field and in trying to play for their team, their community,” Kiermaier said. "There’s a lot of people that are involved in these matchups, these rivalries. That’s why we’re going to go out there and try to do our best to keep the momentum that we kept in the regular season heading in now, and once again doing what we have to do to win ballgames each and every way. We’re ready to go. We’re very confident. And it’s going to be a fun time playing against those guys.''