Maybe this is how it needed to happen.
In every way, the Rays and Yankees rivalry is seen as a battle between David and Goliath. The Yankees are the franchise with 27 World Series championships, endless traditions, retired numbers, a fancy Spring Training facility in Tampa and a seemingly limitless checkbook to secure the best free agents.
The Rays get there a different way. Tampa Bay relies on making opportunistic trades, scouting and finding hidden gems and then developing those players through the Minor Leagues.
Perhaps no player on the Rays’ roster embodies the organization’s underdog mentality more than Mike Brosseau, who was an undrafted free agent in 2016, making it fitting that he was the one who delivered the go-ahead home run in the eighth inning off Aroldis Chapman, leading the Rays to the American League Championship Series with a 2-1 win over the Yankees on Friday night at Petco Park.
“That was hands-down the greatest moment I’ve been a part of in baseball,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “There’s been some great ones, but for what that meant to this team, how we got there, that matchup, it’s pretty special.”
The moment was even sweeter for the Rays and Brosseau when you consider the events leading up to it. On Sept. 1, Chapman threw a 101 mph fastball over the head of Brosseau, ratcheting up the rivalry between the two teams. That sparked a benches-clearing ending to the game and a memorable speech by Cash, reminding the Yankees that the Rays had a “whole damn stable” waiting in the bullpen.
A day after the incident, the Rays held a quick team meeting inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Yankee Stadium. Cash, who was suspended for the game because of his postgame comments, led the charge. After the meeting, the players ultimately decided that the best way to get back at the Yankees was to beat them on the field. Brosseau beat the Yankees that night with two home runs and did so again on Friday with his solo blast off Chapman.
The 100.2 mph fastball from Chapman was the fastest pitch hit by a Rays player since pitch-tracking became available in 2008 and the fastest hit by any player in the Majors this season. The 10-pitch at-bat is the longest at-bat in Chapman’s career that resulted in a home run.
“That was very storybook,” said Rays starter Tyler Glasnow. “I still can’t even comprehend it. It was so awesome that it was him. He’s grinded all year long, he had spare playing time and in such a big moment like that, it was just phenomenal. When it happened there was kind of a delay and then everyone just, like, didn’t even know how to comprehend it. It was unbelievable. That was the most memorable baseball moment I’ve been a part of.”
After the game, Brosseau shut down the idea that the homer against Chapman felt like revenge for him. Brosseau is the type of player who is the first to volunteer to pitch in mop-up duty and play every position on the field, so it was no surprise that the utility man kept the focus on the team win.
“I don’t know if there’s any way to describe that kind of feeling,” Brosseau said. “It’s something I’ll never forget. Just so happy that this team does what we do every day, and that’s come to the park to play. We just have so much fun.”
Part of the reason Brosseau doesn’t seem fazed by the moments could be credited by what he has had to overcome throughout his career. Four years ago, all 30 teams passed up on Brosseau at least 40 times, despite a successful career in Oakland University in Michigan. After the Draft, Brosseau didn’t know what came next, but that’s when the Rays reached out. The offer was for $1,000 and there was no guarantee that Brosseau would stick around if he didn’t perform. That only motivated him.
“Luckily I was picked up by a team like the Rays who kind of uses versatility and uses everybody and puts me in great situations,” Brosseau said. “Coming out of college, I thought I did what I could to get on some radars, but it was kind of a blessing in disguise.”
Over the next couple of years, Brosseau ran with the opportunity and forced the Rays to give him more opportunities. In 2016, Brosseau hit .319 in 35 games in Rookie ball. The following year, Brosseau hit .321 between Class A Bowling Green and Class A Advanced Charlotte. Last season, Brosseau hit .304 with 16 home runs at Triple-A Durham before the Rays called him up to the big league roster on June 23, 2019, against Oakland.
Since then, the Rays are 53-33 when Brosseau makes an appearance on the field. Off the field, Brosseau is one of the most energetic players on the team. During March Madness in Spring Training, his teammates voted Brosseau to be the “hype man” on a fake basketball team. All those qualities make Brosseau invaluable to the organization.
“Being a part of that moment with Brosseau, you can’t really put that into words. I saw some guys tearing up, it’s a very special moment,” said Rays outfielder Austin Meadows, who took Gerrit Cole deep in the fifth to tie the game at 1. “It couldn’t have happened to a better guy, so it’s very, very special.”
Before the start of each season, Brosseau writes down a list of goals that he wants to accomplish. Making the Opening Day roster was one he checked off this season, but Brosseau doesn’t want to be just another undrafted free agent who reaches the big leagues. He wants to be the type of player that plays for a long time and makes an impact.
Eliminating the Yankees in the first-ever postseason meeting between the two franchises and sending the Rays to the ALCS for a rematch against the Astros certainly checks off that box.
“To have a team like the Rays give me a chance four years ago when nobody else did,” Brosseau said. “It definitely makes it a little more special to kind of help out the team like I did tonight. I’m just happy to do my part and keep this team together for at least a little bit longer.”