ST. PETERSBURG — Struggling against tough Yankees pitching for a third straight game, the Rays weren’t concerned Saturday afternoon with style points or exit velocities.
So they were just fine with the key hits in a much-needed 3-1 win over the Yankees coming on a 64.5-mph line drive single, a 74.9-mph blooper down the rightfield line and a slow bouncer to third base.
“Sometimes you hit the ball really hard and you don’t get anything out of it,” third baseman Yandy Diaz said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “(Saturday) we didn’t hit the ball hard and we were able to score some runs. So however we’ve got to do it, we’ll do it.”
And they got to be happy about it, having lost the first two games of the season between the American League East’s top two teams and not putting up much of a fight given their quiet bats. Playing before a Tropicana Field sellout crowd of 25,025, the Rays improved to 27-19 and reduced their division deficit to 5 ½ games behind the majors-best 33-14 Yankees.
“It was a good win, man,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Anytime you’re going up against the Yankees, and especially when Gerrit Cole’s on the mound and you find a way to win a game when he was pretty lights out for his outing, we’re happy.”
In small ways, the Rays did a lot right to take control of a game that was a duel between their Corey Kluber and Cole.
Down since the Yankees scored in the first, and hitless until two outs in the fifth, the Rays rallied to tie in the sixth off Cole.
Ji-Man Choi, whose previous success against Cole didn’t help him, did one of those key little things, battling back from an 0-2 count with two outs to draw a seven-pitch walk. After Cole walked struggling Wander Franco on four pitches, Randy Arozarena delivered the first big hit — a soft single to leftfield that scored Choi.
Arozarena said, via Navarro, that he was seeking a pitch to “hopefully hit it hard and hit it really hard. But I was able to connect and then I got the hit that I got. ... As long as it lands where there is nobody I’m always going to be happy.”
The Rays took the lead in the seventh against the Yankees bullpen.
After Kevin Kiermaier singled, Francisco Mejia blooped the ball down the rightfield line that dropped between two Yankees, putting runners on third and second.
“All I was trying to do was try to get the runner over from second base to help them get closer so they can score,” Mejia said, via Navarro. “But when you get results like that, you’ve got to accept it.”
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After Kiermaier was thrown out at the plate on pinch-hitter Harold Ramirez’s grounder to first, Taylor Walls — who riled up the Yankees by saying Thursday they were “very beatable” — did another key little thing. In a 1-for-33 rut and hitting .145, Walls grounded to second, but hustled to beat the relay to first, preventing an inning-ending double play as Mejia advanced to third.
“I think we’ve come to expect and appreciate more than anything the way (the players) go about their business,” Cash said. “You can be frustrated, but there are little things that you can do to keep the inning going and he definitely did that.”
The Rays went ahead when Diaz hit a slow bouncer to third he thought was going to be foul, then joked about using his blazing speed as DJ LeMahieu grabbed the ball but had no play as Mejia scored.
The Rays added a run in the eighth when Franco tripled and Margot singled him in, extending his hitting streak to 15 games, four shy of Jason Bartlett’s 2009 team record.
“We haven’t been able to hit as well as we would like to,” Diaz said. “But we were able to get the hits that we wanted to and that worked out for us.”
Better yet, Diaz said, is if some big things come from this small start.
“I think the doors opened for all the hits,” he said. “So from here on out, I think all the hits are coming.”
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