ST. PETERSBURG — Maybe a renewal of their spicy rivalry with the Yankees is just what the Rays need right now.
With a four-game losing streak and mounting injury list, Tampa Bay on Friday not only will welcome fans back to Tropicana Field for the first time since October 2019 for its home opener but also meet its most rabid rival.
And remind the Yankees, quite publicly, of the Rays’ success last season by raising their American League East and AL championship banners.
“A little bit of kind of a perfect storm,” Rays pitcher Ryan Yarbrough said.
The 2021 schedule was released in July, before anyone knew the Rays would dominate the Yankees as they never had in the regular season, winning eight of 10 games. Or have heated exchanges during the abbreviated season, most dramatically when New York reliever Aroldis Chapman threw a 100.5 mph pitch at Mike Brosseau’s head on Sept. 1. Or that the Rays would get the ultimate revenge, eliminating the Yankees in a tense, five-game division series, Brosseau striking the decisive blow with a homer off Chapman.
So, Tampa Bay was sent on the road to open the season for the first time since 2009 — playing at, of all places, Miami for an interleague series. After three games in Boston, the Rays now return home to face the Yankees.
“It’s funny how serendipitousness seems to follow us around, for whatever reason,” Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Thursday. “It puts a little more of an exclamation point on it, I suppose. Clearly, as opposed to many of the other teams, there will be a lot of Yankee fans in the stands, too.
“On the one hand, you don’t like to make them angry. But on the other hand, it was hard-fought and well-won. And we took it a lot further than that. They were a step in the whole thing. They weren’t the final step even to get to the World Series.”
The Astros were the higher-stakes victims on the Rays’ way to meeting the Dodgers. But these are the Yankees, with their large and loud following — especially around the team’s Tampa spring base — which seems able to navigate whatever logistical hurdles stymie others from getting to the Trop.
And these are the Rays, who never seem to escape the shadow of the higher-profile — and definitely higher-paid — Yankees, even when they have the more successful team.
And this is definitely a rivalry.
“They definitely got the best of us last year,” Yankees veteran outfielder Brett Gardner said. “They were the better team, and they beat us, and obviously they moved on.
“There’s definitely a sour taste in our mouth from that. We would like to get back on top and win the division, win the American League and move on to the World Series. They obviously had the better team last year. So hopefully this year, we’ll kind of take that crown from them.
“Seeing them raise the flag and things like that, it definitely brings back those memories,” Gardner continued. ”It’s just a reminder of how hard we need to work to continue to get better, not just individually, but collectively as a group.”
The Rays are well aware.
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“I think there’s definitely in their mind some unfinished business, and that’s going to just fuel the rivalry a little bit more,” Brosseau said. “We’re going into the season knowing that they’re going to be right there with us and it’s going to be competitive all the way to the final game.
“I don’t know if we expect too much to roll over from last year, but I think just the general competition will be intense.”
Regrouping after their rough early stretch is obviously the main motivation for the 2-4 Rays. But putting on a good show for the fans who missed seeing their 2020 success firsthand due to the pandemic is also on their list.
“It’ll be a beautiful thing seeing fans in the stands once again,” said Kevin Kiermaier, the most-tenured and now injured, Ray. “And at least being proud of the American League championship banner. A lot to be proud about that. And it’s only fitting that we get our first game of the year at the Trop versus a division rival like the Yankees. So it ought to be a lot of fun. … It’ll be great showing up to your home ballpark once again and seeing some familiar faces again.”
The Rays had some experience playing before a (mostly Dodgers-blue) crowd at the World Series in Arlington, then during spring training in Port Charlotte and in Miami and Boston.
But being back at the Trop, where there will be around 9,000 fans in socially distanced pod seating including in the reopened upper deck (and with Sternberg on hand for the first time since the 2019 ALDS Game 4 win over Houston), will be special.
“There’s nothing like playing in front of your home fans and having people cheer you on when you’re doing good things out there,” Kiermaier said. “I know all of our guys are excited to get back out there, and we want to put on a show for our fans each and every day.”
Even more so this weekend.
“After that series in Boston, what’s a better way to do it than getting fans back at the Trop, and seeing the banner in the outfield,” shortstop Willy Adames said. “I’m really excited. Especially against the Yankees. That makes it even better.”
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