NEW YORK — Ever since the Yankees roared off to their record-threatening start, winning 52 of their first 70 games, the American League East race was considered all but over.
But here’s a question:
When does that now come into question?
The Rays beat the Yankees again Tuesday, this time 3-1, behind another Randy Arozarena home run and a strong group pitching effort, started by Jeffrey Springs and finished by Jason Adam.
The victory extended the latest run for the Rays, who have won four straight and eight of 12. And it continued the Yankees’ ongoing slide, as they have lost 11 of their last 13 and gone 20-27 since that incredible start.
It also reduced New York’s AL East lead, which bulged to 15½ games on July 8, to nine, a somewhat manageable margin to overcome with 47 games remaining.
It’s a deficit the Rays have erased before. In 2011, they were nine games out of a playoff spot on Sept. 3 and came back to earn a wild-card berth.
So, are the Rays, at 62-53, thinking again about the division title?
“Of course, everyone would love to win the division,” Arozarena said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “You play less games in the postseason (with a first-round bye). But we’ve just got to keep staying positive, keep moving forward and hopefully just keep on winning.”
Several other players, and manager Kevin Cash, took the one-game-at-a-time approach — at least for now.
“We’re in a great position,” Adam said. “If you look at our schedule (with upcoming games against most of the other AL postseason contenders), the ball’s in our court. We’ve just got to do what we need to do to win each game. Give ourselves a chance each game. And I think we’ll be sitting in a good spot come the end of the year.”
The Yankees, meanwhile, are trying to not get too stressed over their struggles.
“You never want to lose. No one in here is happy about it,” star Aaron Judge said. “Having a little bit of a cushion helps, but that cushion can dwindle quick, so we’ve got to stay on top of it.
“It’s better to have this happen now in August than in the first week of playoffs or near the end of the year when you’re getting into playoffs, kind of getting punched in the mouth a little bit. ... Learn to respond to getting hit in the face a couple times, it’s going to be good for us. You can’t have the good without the bad, so I think it’s good for everybody in this room to go through this stretch, kind of look themselves in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, what do I need to do to get better?’ so we can kind of get out of this rut.”
The Rays were buoyed by the sooner-than-expected return of outfielder/first baseman Harold Ramirez, who rejoined the team after playing just one rehab game with Triple-A Durham after sustaining a broken right thumb on July 17.
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They grabbed the early momentum with a three-run homer by Arozarena in the first inning.
Yandy Diaz singled on Nestor Cortes’ second pitch of the game, and Isaac Paredes did the same. After Ramirez flied out, Arozarena jumped on a 1-1 fastball, driving it 389 feet with an exit velocity of 105.2 mph.
It was Arozarena’s second three-run homer in three games, his fourth homer in his last six and his team-leading 16th of the season.
“Hopefully that’s the trend, that he’s kind of heating up,” Cash said. “We know when he gets going he can carry a just a massive load for us. Don’t want to put the pressure on him to do it, but we certainly will take it.”
Arozarena said he would like to do more.
“I’m glad I’m in the streak right now, but I think I could always be in a better streak,” he said. “I try to give 100 percent of everything I do every single time. And we’re all going to get in bad streaks sometimes, so I’ve just got to like these good streaks as they go.”
How much better would he like to be?
“I want to hit a home run every at-bat,” Arozarena said.
Springs made the lead stand up with a strong five-inning outing. He allowed only the one run when Andrew Benintendi drove a ball to right-center that Jose Siri couldn’t run down and played into a triple. Third baseman Diaz mishandled the ensuing grounder to score the run.
The Rays then went to the bullpen brigade, with not only Pete Fairbanks and Brooks Raley getting big outs, but also Shawn Armstrong, who finished the seventh and started the eighth, allowing a two-out single. Adam took it from there, retiring Judge to end the eighth, followed by a 1-2-3 ninth.
“We need to feel good about ourselves,” Cash said. “It’s been a grind a little bit from the All-Star break. Wins in this ballpark, against this team, they can elevate you a little bit, make you feel that much better.”
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