NEW YORK — Yoshi Tsutsugo’s struggles have been painfully obvious to all, including his Rays teammates who have tried to provide support and encouragement.
Kevin Kiermaier reached out via text message Saturday night, “just to remind him how good he is at this game, because when things aren’t going our way, we tend to forget that at times. All positive reinforcement to let him relax a little bit because we need him moving forward.”
On Sunday, Tsutsugo responded, delivering his biggest hit as a Ray in a huge moment, doubling in the decisive run in the seventh to help complete a three-game sweep of the Yankees with a 4-2 win.
“I’m really glad I was able to hit that RBI (double) today,’' Tsutsugo said via team interpreter Brian Tobin. “I hope to increase these kind of at-bats and help my team more in the future.’'
The win extended the Rays’ remarkable domination of their rabid rivals, having won 15 of their past 18 games and six straight series in regular-season play against New York, plus the 2020 American League Division Series. And they kept the AL-worst Yankees (5-10) reeling, losers of five straight and off to their poorest start since 1997.
The sweep of a three-game-or-more series at Yankee Stadium was their second in two years, though only the fourth in the Rays’ 24-season history. (Put another way, they’ve swept two of the last three after two of the first 51.)
“It is gratifying to come in here and for the guys to find a way to complete (a sweep) and win three,’' manager Kevin Cash said. “It’s just not an easy thing to do. It doesn’t happen very often. So you got to enjoy it when it does.’'
Sunday’s win, like most for Tampa Bay (8-8), was something of a team effort.
Ryan Yarbrough took over in the second inning for opener Andrew Kittredge and worked five impressive innings, dueling Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, allowing just one run on two hits.
Consecutive hits by Mike Zunino, Kiermaier and Yandy Diaz to open the third got them one run, a Manuel Margot sac fly and some shaky Yankees defense another. After Tsutsugo put them ahead with his well-struck double in the seventh, Joey Wendle — the “Big Bopper,” as Cash is now calling him — added an insurance run with his second homer in two days.
And the bullpen closed it out, Diego Castillo getting them through the seventh and eighth, and Jeffrey Springs, the lefty acquired in a February trade with Boston, closing it out for his first major-league save.
After going to New York following three straight losses to Texas, the Rays headed to Kansas City on Sunday afternoon feeling a lot better about themselves.
“To do it on the road and in a pretty hostile environment, and then, honestly, just for where we’ve been throughout the season, how we kind of finished the homestand, to get a great start for the road trip is huge,’' Yarbrough said.
They clearly were happiest for Tsutsugo, who had a rough debut in 2020 after signing a two-year, $12 million contract to come over from Japan but, following an encouraging spring, had been flailing again.
Going into Sunday, he was 1-for-his-last-13 and hitting . 154 overall, with a strikeout rate over 40 percent. He had played his way onto the bench and perhaps into a tenuous position to stay on the roster when Ji-Man Choi comes off the injured list in May.
“When the results don’t come out as you want, I kind of got a little frustrated at times,’' Tsutsugo said. “But that’s when my teammates and my coaches really talked to me and gave me advice, and that really helped, and that’s what gave me more confidence again.’'
In the past few days, Tsutsugo worked to shorten his swing, sacrificing some power for contact. His first at-bat Sunday was promising, as he lined a Cole changeup to right that Aaron Judge snared with a diving catch. In the seventh, with Wendle on after a one-out single, Tsutsugo laced another changeup to right-center, driving in the game’s biggest run, and all the Rays in the dugout let him know.
“Everybody was really pumped,’' Cash said “Yoshi has been a great teammate. He’s supportive of his teammates, his teammates are supportive of him. And we all see the struggle that’s been taking place here over the last week.
“We care about each other. We certainly care a lot about him and want to see him do well. And when he comes through, and in a big, big situation of today’s game, I think everybody felt good about it. He was received really well. I would imagine that he felt the love from his teammates.’'
“I promise you,’' he said, “I was the happiest man in that dugout for him to come up so clutch in that moment right there.’'
Start spreading the boos
The Rays have swept a three-or-more-game series at Yankee Stadium four times in the franchise’s 24-season history:
3-0 April 16-18, 2021
3-0 Aug. 18-20, 2020
3-0 June 30-July 2, 2014
3-0 Sept. 24-26, 2013
Did you know?
• Rays are only team to sweep a three-or-more-game series at Yankee Stadium since August 2017, when Indians did it. And Rays have done it twice since then.
• Rays have swept a three-or-more-game series from Yankees nine times in 24 seasons — four in New York, five at the Trop (most recent, June 2018).
• Rays held Yankees to five or fewer hits in each game of this series, their longest such three-game streak against any team since 2018, one shy of the club record, set in 2011.
• Rays are 8-1 at Yankee Stadium since start of 2020; all other visitors 7-24.
• Overall, Rays are 5-1 against Yankees this season, 15-3 since September 2019.
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