TAMPA, Fla. – If this seems familiar, well, it is.
The Rays 2020 baseball season comes down to exactly what the Rays’ 2019 season came down to beat Gerrit Cole in the deciding game of an ALDS.
Again, there is no tomorrow for Kevin Cash and his team. They need to play a fifth game after the Yankees forced it Thursday. The Rays were the best team in the American League in this bizarre, truncated season. But they were looking good. We were watching the early rushes of Randy Arozarena: The Movie.
But now here stands Gerrit Cole. In the way, again. Last time, he shut the Rays down to propel the cheater Astros to another ALCs and then another World Series.
The Rays have to win tonight or go home. Going home would be a damn shame, to say nothing of the fact that the Lightning has already put a Stanley Cup on the Tampa Bay scorecard. True, Tom Brady still has to figure out when fourth down is before he can lead the Bucs to better days. Thursday night at Chicago was clearly not one of them. Lose to the Packers a week from Sunday and the Bucs are 3-3. Been there, done that.
Back to the Rays. It’s their turn.
This season can’t end like this. It can’t.
But it could.
Cash’s team won two out of every three games it played during the sprint portion of the program, going 40-20. The Rays pitched, hit, pitched, fielded, pitched, ran, and pitched. Did we mention they pitched?
But maybe it’s about time the Rays and Yankees came down to a no-tomorrow moment. It took 22 years to finally get these two teams into a playoff series. Why not test the limits?
The Rays were a non-entity when they broke into baseball in 1998. The Yankees were on their way to winning a Wolrd Series. I was at Yankee Stadium when the Yankees beat the Rays on the final day of the 1998 season for their then-AL record 114th win. It also marked Joe DiMaggio’s last appearance in the Bronx. He marked it by screaming in a stadium hall at a Yankees p.r. intern who had messed up. The dude probably asked about Marilyn.
The Rays were a flyspeck to the Yankees in those early days. There was 2004 when Yankees owner George Steinbrenner forced the Rays to travel to New York for a doubleheader despite the fact that a hurricane was battering Tampa Bay. Lovely.
Of course, it all changed in 2008, when Joe Maddon and the Miracles stood up to the Yankees in spring training, a home plater collision, followed by Yankee’s payback, followed by Rays fighting back. It signaled a new kind of Rays, hold the Devil, and ushered in a season that saw the Rays make the World Series.
The Rays and Yankees have always gone together, whether they like it or not. The Rays always seem to be around when something happens with the Yankees, like Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit (a home run off David Price) or Mariano Rivera’s final game, or the memorial after Steinbrenner died, or, of course, Game 162 when the Rays came back on the resting Yankees to beat the Red Sox out of a playoff sport on that fabled Evan Longoria walk-off.
There was the night at Tropicana Field when Jeter faked being hit by a pitch to reach base in the heat of a playoff race. There were CC Sabathia and the Rays chirping at each other. And this year there has been Yankees closer, Aroldis Chapman, throwing at Mike Brosseau, and Brosseau answering the following day with two homers. Somewhere in there, Cash all but threatened retaliation with his “whole damn stable” of pitchers who throw 98 mph.
And now here stands Gerrit Cole, the $300-million man.
The Rays owned the Yanks during the season, going 8-2. When they grabbed the lead in this series, I thought that was that. It was on to the ALCS, against the Astors, another score to settle.
But here we are. Chapman shut down the Rays to close Game 4. The battle lines were drawn.
I’m not counting the Rays out Friday night. The Rays, in their playoff history, all six seasons of it, have never lost a series frim ahead. They lost to Texas in 2010 after coming back from 0-2 down to force a Game 5. Last season, they came back from 0-2 down to get to the fifth game against Houston, a fine accomplishment as far as it went. Once upon a time in the 2008 ALCS, the Red Sox came from 3-1 down to force a Game 7, but the Rays won.
This could be one of those moments: the mighty Bronx Bombers, Judge and Stanton, and the rest, laid to rest.
“They don’t like us, we don’t like them,” Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said before this series began. Rays history seems to demand a win. They will have to find a way around Gerrit Cole and the Yankees. They can do it. They really can.
Now, somebody go tell Gerrit Cole that.