NEW YORK — The Rays and Yankees open another weekend series tonight. Will the focus be on getting hits or hitting batters?
The latter was the primary topic of conversation last weekend, when Yankees pitchers hit Rays in each game, including two, Joey Wendle and Austin Meadows, from the shoulders up.
The Rays see it as a continuation of the Yankees’ behavior from last season, which was headlined by Aroldis Chapman throwing a 101-mph pitch at Mike Brosseau’s head, and several, most vocally Kevin Kiermaier, have said they were unhappy it carried over.
“I can definitely get behind what KK’s saying,” Brosseau said Thursday. “It’s not fun — it’s never fun getting hit. To kind of see it happen over and over again in our lineup and guys that are important to our squad and putting them in danger, it’s not a good situation.
“So, yeah, definitely a little disappointed to see some things trickle over from last year into this season. Hopefully it goes more away from that topic of conversation and just playing good baseball between two really good teams that are fighting for a division title. It’s disappointing. It’s frustrating. But at the same time, I know our mind-set is not anything outside of the actual game. Hopefully that’s the way it stays going into this weekend.”
The Yankees kind of feel the same way.
“Tensions are high,” outfielder Aaron Judge said Wednesday. “We’ve gone back and forth with the Rays. We get hit, they get brushed back. If they get hit, we get brushed back. It’s kind of back and forth. But I think the most important thing is just focusing on the game and let our play do the talking. I think that’s the best outcome for both sides.”
Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake said they don’t plan on changing their plan despite the increased focus.
“There’s a delicate balance there,” Blake said. “Obviously we want to pitch inside, because that’s a big part of our plan moving the ball on both sides. You have to be aware that there are some natural tensions between our two teams so anytime you hit a guy there’s going to be a perceived, ‘Is it intentional? Is it not intentional?’ I think it’s something we have to wrestle with.
“I totally understand their frustration with it. (Jordan Montgomery) obviously was not looking to hit Meadows (Sunday) and was struggling in general with his command. But I think for us, it’s just not letting the noise kind of get to us and moving us away from our attack plan, but being mindful of some of these things that are underlying, some of the games we’re playing.”
The Rays took two of three last weekend against New York to continue their recent dominance, winning 12 of the last 15 regular-season games and five straight series, plus a sixth in the playoffs, with a 3-2 American League Division Series victory.
And they definitely get up for playing the Yankees, who have become their biggest rival, supplanting the Red Sox.
“I guess we get more excited whenever we play the Yankees, I don’t know,” shortstop Willy Adames said during last weekend’s series. “It’s been great playing against them the past couple years. It’s like a good rivalry. We know we have to step it up because they are a good team, and we have to play better than the way we were playing to beat them.”
Playing in front of the Yankee Stadium fans, albeit in limited numbers with a pandemic cap of around 10,000, for the first time since 2019 will add to the intensity.
“We did have success there last year; it’s still a very, very good team that we’re going to play,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Pretty historic. Yankee Stadium is a pretty special place. We had success, and we’d like to see that carry over.
“But whatever venue it is, I don’t know if that matters as much as just the quality of the opponent, and we know that they’re a very talented team. We feel we are as well, and we’ve got to get back to playing good baseball, whatever ballpark we’re in.”
And even better if they get back on track in New York, their first visit since the Aug. 31-Sept. 2 series when Brosseau was hit.
“We’ve been kind of scuffling lately and not playing our ball,” Brosseau said. “It is what it is going back to Yankee Stadium. I think the main objective on our minds right now is getting back to the way we play and putting a good product, the best product that we can put on the field.”
• • •
Sign up for the Rays Report weekly newsletter to get fresh perspectives on the Tampa Bay Rays and the rest of the majors from sports columnist John Romano.