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So sweet of the Yankees to invite the Rays back in the division race

John Romano | After a historic start to 2022, the Yankees have had an even more historic decline. And now this weekend’s three-game series is must-see baseball.
Life seemed a whole lot sweeter for the Yankees back in May when Aaron Judge (99) was celebrating a home run with first baseman Anthony Rizzo (48) at Tropicana Field. Since the All-Star break, the Yankees have the worst record (15-24) in the AL East.
Life seemed a whole lot sweeter for the Yankees back in May when Aaron Judge (99) was celebrating a home run with first baseman Anthony Rizzo (48) at Tropicana Field. Since the All-Star break, the Yankees have the worst record (15-24) in the AL East. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sept. 1, 2022|Updated Sept. 1, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — Chances are, the Rays are not going to repeat as American League East champs. Their upcoming schedule is too difficult, and there’s not enough time.

(Unless the Yankees continue to free fall.)

The Rays remarkably have made up nine games in the standings in the past 29 days and are the AL’s top wild-card contender, but they also shelved Shane McClanahan and Brandon Lowe in the past week.

(Unless Aroldis Chapman gets another tattoo.)

The computer models say the odds of Tampa Bay somehow closing the gap on New York in the season’s final five weeks are no better than 25-to-1.

(Unless the Yankees are history’s biggest chokers.)

So, maybe this seems like a good time to mention the Yankees are rolling into Tropicana Field this weekend for a three-game series. Of course, “rolling” might be generous. Slinking is probably apropos.

The only reason we’re even having this conversation is because the Yankees have been veering toward a monumental collapse for more than a month now.

You remember the Yankees, right? Big spenders, big hitters, big talkers. They got off to a once-in-a-generation start this season and were feeling pretty good about themselves in mid-July.

They were 64-28 at the All-Star break, and a New York Post story wondered if “they may be even better than their record.” A Daily News headline implored “Let’s Go All the Way” as the second half began.

And the hype was entirely justified. Only 19 other teams had ever gotten off to such a fast start, and more than half went on to win the World Series.

Of all those hot-shot teams, not a single one played below .500 the rest of the season. The 1913 Philadelphia Athletics came the closest at 31-30.

So how do these Yankees fare on that list? They are 15-24 since the All-Star break.

That’s a .696 winning percentage in the first half, followed by .385 in the second half. That might be the worst second act since Sonny left Cher.

Luis Severino went down, then Matt Carpenter got hurt, Giancarlo Stanton was out for a while and then Nestor Cortes went on the injured list. Things have gotten so bad that Chapman, their one-time closer and resident tough guy, was put on the shelf after a new tattoo led to a leg infection.

Once the home runs stopped flying at a record pace, the offense began to look entirely one-dimensional. Frankie Montas, who was acquired from Oakland at the trade deadline, has gone 0-2 with a 7.01 ERA in New York. Jordan Montgomery, who was traded to St. Louis at the deadline, has gone 4-0 with a 1.76 ERA for the Cardinals.

So does all of this mean the Rays have a legitimate chance of winning the East?

Eh, probably not.

Six games in 33 days is still a pretty hefty margin to erase. No doubt, it can be done. The ‘78 Yankees made up 7-1/2 games on the Red Sox, the ‘69 Mets made up five games on the Cubs, and the ‘51 Giants made up six games on the Dodgers, all in a 33-game span. But those are also among the great collapses in MLB history.

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The Rays have 33 games in 33 days with two series against the Yankees, two against the Blue Jays, two against the Astros and one against the Guardians. That’s almost an entire month of playoff-caliber baseball for a team still missing its shortstop, and now its second baseman and ace.

But if the Rays take two out of three this weekend — or even sweep — the panic level in the Bronx is going to ratchet up to delightful levels.

There has always been an uptight vibe around recent Yankees teams. Maybe it’s the 12-year absence between World Series appearances for such a historic franchise. Maybe slamming a table at a postgame news conference and getting ejected from a league-high six games is the wrong tone for manager Aaron Boone to send to a team already prone to dealing with outside pressure.

Maybe all of the 30-something sluggers (Stanton, Carpenter, Anthony Rizzo, Josh Donaldson, DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Hicks) were bound to get dinged up or slow down.

Whatever the reason, the Yankees have invited the Rays back into the division race.

To their credit, the Rays have taken advantage by going 18-8 over the past 26 games. They probably can’t keep up that pace for another month, and the Yankees probably won’t flounder much longer.

But for now, for this weekend, relax and enjoy the panic.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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