ST. PETERSBURG — With the Yankees rampaging through the first half of the season, climbing atop the American League East by the third week and opening a double-digit lead before Father’s Day, there seemed to be no point in talking about a division race.
But with the Yankees stumbling over the last two months and the Rays surging in August, suddenly there is no reason not to.
“Well,” Rays pitcher Drew Rasmussen said, “we’ve got a chance.”
Consider that on July 10, the Rays — having just been swept in Cincinnati and losing Wander Franco and Kevin Kiermaier to injury — were at their nadir. They sat in third place at 45-40, 15½ games back of the Yankees, left seemingly to battle for one of the three AL wild-card spots.
Now, consider that when the teams meet Friday at Tropicana Field to open the first of back-to-back weekend series, the Rays — coming off an AL-best 18-9 August — trail by only six games (and five in the loss column).
The Rays trimmed 9½ games off the Yankees’ lead over a 44-game span. Now they’ve got 33 left — conveniently including six head-to-head — to catch them.
“We need to beat them,” outfielder Randy Arozarena said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “The more we can beat them, the closer we can get. … Everyone’s happy to play against them, and everyone’s excited for it.”
Added infielder Yandy Diaz, via Navarro: “All the games we play against them are always good games. It doesn’t matter how many games they are in front of us. We’re there to have a good series.”
Given the way the Rays have overcome injuries and inconsistent individual performances all season, the loss this week of ace starter Shane McClanahan and second baseman Brandon Lowe for what are expected to be short injured-list stints, doesn’t deter them one bit.
“Not wavering at all,” Lowe said. “We’ve battled through so much adversity, we’ve gotten ourselves into, honestly, as good a position as we could have asked for coming down the stretch, with the Yankees seemingly in reach and a bunch of games against them.”
There is going to be added juice — and certainly more people in the Tropicana Field stands this weekend — because the Rays are chasing down the rival Yankees, with whom they have sparred for years and beat in a tense 2020 playoff series.
But the Rays — who currently sit atop the three-team AL wild-card field at 72-57 and already are positioned for a fourth straight playoff appearance — have a sense of stewardship of the AL East, having won back-to-back division titles.
“It’s not even the fact that it’s the Yankees — it’s first place,” Lowe said.
“I think it’s just kind of gotten to a point of what we’ve done over the past few years. And first place just feels so much better than first wild-card. So I think everybody in this locker room will tell you the same thing — that we’re trying to shoot to make it very interesting here down the stretch.”
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The Rays have made a mad dash like this before. In 2011, they were nine games out of a playoff spot on Sept. 3 and came back to earn a wild-card berth, winning their way in on Evan Longoria’s Game 162 walkoff homer.
To further narrow this year’s gap, the Rays will have to continue their strong overall play. The 79-52 Yankees lead the season series 8-5, with 11 of the games decided by two or one runs, most recently Aug. 17 on Josh Donaldson’s 10th-inning walkoff grand slam that spoiled a Rays sweep in New York.
It will help if the Yankees — who were 10-18 in August and headed to Tampa Bay on an overnight flight after wrapping up a trip to Oakland and Anaheim, losing four of the last five — continue to struggle.
Manager Aaron Boone said after Wednesday’s loss that injuries have been part of the team’s problem.
“But that said, we have all the pieces right now to be able to go out and win baseball games, and that’s what we’ve got to take care of,” he said. “The unfortunate part of the last several weeks for us has been we’ve been losing those close games, and that’s what we got to find a way to punch through.
“I think a big part of that is just getting a few guys going from a performance standpoint, from a health standpoint. If we can do that, like I’ve said, it’s right there in front of us.”
The Rays insist they’re not looking too far ahead at what may be in front of them.
Winning the division, Rasmussen said, “would be really cool. But at this point, it’s just winning. Come to the field and win every day.
“You can’t control what happens in other clubhouses or on the field somewhere else. But if we show up and we prepare and execute the way we can, I really like our chances day in and day out.”
Here are the AL East standings after play on July 10:
Team W L Pct. GB
Yankees 61 25 .709 —
Red Sox 47 39 .547 14
Rays 45 40 .529 15 1/2
Blue Jays 45 42 .517 16 1/2
Orioles 43 44 .494 18 1/2
And here are the AL East standings going into play Friday:
Team W L Pct. GB
Yankees 79 52 .603 —
Rays 72 57 .558 6
Blue Jays 70 59 .543 8
x-Orioles 68 61 .527 10
x-Red Sox 63 68 .547 16
x-Not including Thursday’s game
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