Yankees-Rays drama carries on despite all the weirdness

SAN DIEGO — It’s official: Yankees-Rays plays anywhere.

It’s also official: Four days off didn’t reduce the 2020 Yankees’ October mojo one bit. It seems to have only strengthened it.

Petco Park’s first-ever American League Division Series game proved no bubble trouble for Aaron Boone’s bunch, who bettered the Rays, 9-3, in the tighter-than-the-final-score-reveals opener of this best-of-five series Monday. Rookie Deivi Garcia will take the mound Tuesday, the youngest Yankee to ever start a postseason game, as the owner of a 1-0 advantage in games and his team feeling as good about itself as it has all season.

We already knew that this surging rivalry didn’t need fans to fuel it; to the contrary, the empty Yankee Stadium and Tropicana Field made it easier for the two sides to hear each chirp about every real and perceived violation. Yet this neutral-site setup here on the other coast, motivated by the same desire to contain the novel coronavirus as the fan-free regular-season contests, represented some next-level weirdness, the two clubs reconvening at a ballpark that each visits for roughly three series every 13 years.

No matter. The Yankees and Rays played the high-quality brand of ball that we’ve come to expect all season. And the Yankees excelled in a way that we’ve come to expect for … three games. They are now 3-0 in this postseason, displaying a toughness and crispness that barely displayed itself during the haphazard regular season and riding the sublime work of first-year ace Gerrit Cole, who is on track to earn every penny of his $301.3 million contract (the pandemic cancellations took away that extra $22.7 million).

With only bubbled family members, team and league officials and scattered media in the stands, the clubs didn’t even bother with the traditional baseline roster introductions, nor did managers Aaron Boone and Kevin Cash — hardly Zoom pals after Cash publicly bashed Boone in the wake of Aroldis’ Chapman’s dangerously high and tight pitch to Mike Brosseau on Sept. 1 — exchange any greetings. Rays third-base coach Rodney Linares represented his team and Boone his during the home-plate confab with the umpires.

Once Rays ace Blake Snell threw the first pitch, however, it seemed like old times, or maybe not old enough for the Rays after dominating the Yankees, 8-2, in August and September. The Yankees quickly pounced, actually manufacturing a run in the top of the first on DJ LeMahieu’s leadoff single (naturally), a Snell wild pitch, a Judge nubber in front of home plate that moved LeMahieu to third and an Aaron Hicks sacrifice fly.

The Rays counter punched in the bottom of the inning because that’s what they do, ridiculous rookie Randy Arozarena smoking a fastball over the center-field wall. And then the Yankees showed that, against a Cy Young Award-caliber arm like Snell (he won the AL honors two years ago), it sometimes can be easier to get hold of one pitch and blast it out of play than to string together two or three hits. First came Clint Frazier, joining the playoff round-tripper derby with his solo shot in the third inning that put the Yankees back on top, 2-1. Then, after Cole-killer (and former Yankee) Ji-Man Choi slammed a two-run shot in the bottom of the fourth, catapulting the Rays ahead, 3-2, Snell couldn’t execute the shutdown inning, surrendering solo homers first to Cole’s personal catcher Kyle Higashioka for the 3-3 tie and then to old pal Aaron Judge for the 4-3 Yankees advantage.

It stayed that tight and taut through eight innings, and through that time the Yankees’ dugout never grew louder than when Cole escaped a base-loaded, two-out jam in the bottom of the fifth, intentionally walking the dangerous Choi with Rays on first and second to go after Manuel Margot, whom he struck out on a 100 mph fastball. Incredible drama.

And then, in the top of the ninth, after Hicks delivered an RBI single for an insurance run, and the Yankees loaded the bases, Giancarlo Stanton built on his impressive postseason with a laser grand slam off of John Curtiss, sealing this game for his side.

Great baseball all around, greater for the Yankees, who seemed perfectly at home in this strange baseball land.

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