NEW YORK -- Corey Kluber had spent much of his 2022 campaign making the Yankees pay for letting him go in free agency at the end of last season, one in which he went 5-3 with a 3.83 ERA in 16 starts, including the Yanks’ first no-hitter since David Cone’s 1999 perfect game.
In four starts against the Bronx Bombers, Kluber compiled a miniscule 1.08 ERA with 20 strikeouts across 25 innings. And in his most recent outing against them on Sept. 3 in St. Petersburg, Kluber tossed a season-high seven scoreless innings as the Rays earned the series win.
But that run came to a definitive end on Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, as Kluber exited after only two-thirds of an inning pitched in the Rays’ 10-3 loss to the Yankees (84-56) -- the shortest outing of the 36-year-old right-hander’s 12-year big league career. Tampa Bay (78-59) had allowed five runs in its past four games against the Yanks. Kluber gave up six in the first inning alone, prompting manager Kevin Cash to pull him from the proceedings.
“The Yankees are a very good hitting team, and I generally feel like the advantage goes to the hitters when they see a pitcher in back-to-back outings,” Cash said. “At that point, I look at it like, ‘What can we do to freshen him up?’ I don’t think it makes a ton of sense to kind of grind through it.”
With the result, the Rays dropped to 4 1/2 games behind the Yankees in their quest to claim a third consecutive American League East title. Perhaps more important, Tampa Bay fell to 8-10 in the season series against the Yanks, with Sunday’s finale no longer serving as a potential tiebreaker between the two clubs.
That’s especially significant this season, as there is no longer a Game 163 if teams finish the year with the same record. Instead, the head-to-head matchup is used as the first tiebreaker. So if the Rays and Yankees were to finish in a tie atop the AL East, New York would be crowned champions.
The Yankees led off the first inning with seven consecutive singles off of Kluber, becoming the first team to do so since the Royals on April 22, 1988, vs. the Orioles. Leadoff hitter Aaron Judge added another after the Yankees batted around, putting an abrupt end to his former teammate’s afternoon after 32 pitches (22 strikes).
“It didn’t seem like the plan went like we had originally planned and prepared,” said catcher Francisco Mejía through interpreter Manny Navarro. “He wasn’t really locating his pitches too well, and then they were attacking him early. … Right from the get-go, they were being aggressive, and they weren’t really looking to take any pitches.”
JT Chargois, Garrett Cleavinger, Brooks Raley, Shawn Armstrong, Calvin Faucher and even catcher Christian Bethancourt (on his supposed off-day) pieced together the rest of the game for the Rays, allowing four runs across 7 1/3 innings. Cleavinger, in particular, stood out with a career-high four strikeouts in two scoreless frames; he came within two pitches of an immaculate inning in the third.
It was the second game in five days in which Tampa Bay’s bullpen had a more significant workload than expected, though the first came on Tuesday after Drew Rasmussen went on the paternity list hours before his anticipated start.
“It’s the last situation we want to put them in as the starting pitcher,” Kluber said. “Our bullpen does a great job of logging a lot of innings and pitching really well while logging a lot of innings. It’s not an ideal situation.”
The Rays are now 36-27 against their division foes this year, having won the season series against the Red Sox and Orioles. They also lead the season series over the Blue Jays, 6-4, albeit with nine games remaining between the teams, including a five-game set that starts on Monday in Toronto. That head-to-head matchup will have major implications on the AL Wild Card race, as Tampa Bay holds the top spot.
That’s where the Rays will most likely appear in the postseason field after the season-series loss to the Yankees. A sweep in the Bronx would have tied them in the loss column with the Yanks in the AL East. Now, with 25 games remaining, it will be an uphill climb back toward the mountaintop.
“I don’t really have a strong message,” Cash said. “These guys handle themselves really, really well. They know what’s at stake, and certainly, we knew coming into the month of September that it was a challenging schedule.”