'On brand' in Randy Land as Rays go to 18-2 at home

Arozarena homers, is in the middle of some drama as Tampa Bay sets mark for home start

May 6th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- The first meeting of the season between the Rays and Yankees was full of all the usual drama. The night delivered momentum swings, big hits, contested inside pitches, high-wire acts in high-leverage situations and a whole lot of .

In the end, the Rays came away with another win at Tropicana Field -- and yet another historical feat for the baseball record books.

Arozarena’s first-inning homer helped stake the Rays to an early four-run lead. Tampa Bay gave it away in the sixth inning, only to pull ahead in the seventh on an RBI double by  and hold on for a 5-4 victory before a Friday night crowd of 25,007.

“Very back and forth,” Rays reliever  said. “Pretty standard of what we've seen in the past and what we'll probably see going forward.”

At 27-6, the Rays are 10 games ahead of the Yankees and off to a 33-game start better than all but two clubs in the Modern Era: the 1902 Pirates and ‘84 Tigers (both 28-5). They are the first AL/NL team since 1900 to win 18 of its first 20 home games. Only four teams have put together a better 20-game start at home, and they all played in the 1880s.

Most of the drama in Friday’s series opener centered around Arozarena. Tampa Bay’s star outfielder opened “Randy Land” in style, launching his ninth home run of the season off the netting in front of the center-field ray tank.

“It’s amazing what that guy does,” manager Kevin Cash said.

“Pretty on brand for him,” Poche added, grinning.

On his way around the bases, Arozarena pointed to the cheering fans wearing blue “Arozarena” T-shirts, then pretended to throw back a drink to celebrate the free one he’d just won for everyone in Section 141.

“Very happy and excited, and I know the fans are pretty excited, too,” he said through interpreter Manny Navarro, “because they're able to drink for free because of me.”

The Rays tacked on another run in the second inning and two more in the third against Yankees starter Jhony Brito, including one on ’s ninth home run -- already as many in 30 games as he hit in 137 last year. But tensions flared in the third.

In Arozarena’s first plate appearance after the home run, Brito hit him in the elbow guard with a first-pitch 95.2 mph sinker. Arozarena seemed even more upset when he was hit again in the fifth inning, this time in the ribs by a 97.1 mph sinker from Albert Abreu.

Arozarena looked as if he might throw his bat but instead calmly took his base, glaring back at the mound as he walked down the line. Cash praised Arozarena for being “a pro” in that situation, and Poche noted that his response “kind of kept everybody else calm and just let us move on and just focus on baseball.”

Manager Aaron Boone said the Yankees weren’t throwing at Arozarena, and Brito and Abreu denied any intent. Cash and Arozarena agreed with their assessment, and neither club expects any carryover.

But the umpires then issued warnings to both dugouts, which upset Cash. Crew chief Lance Barksdale told a pool reporter that the umpiring crew did not deem either pitch to be intentional, but it felt it necessary to issue warnings “to try to keep the game under control.” After arguing with Barksdale at first base, Cash was ejected.

“It’s on us as managers, coaches and more so umpires to protect our players. And I felt like, at that point, there’s got to be a little common sense, a little more awareness on their end, and there wasn’t,” Cash said. “I don’t like seeing Randy get hit. I’m very confident they don’t like seeing their guys get hit. Just protecting Randy.”

If that wasn’t enough back and forth for one night, the Yankees tied it up with a four-run sixth inning against Rays starter Yonny Chirinos and lefty reliever Garrett Cleavinger. Even the game-winning hit came with a fair amount of intrigue. 

With one out in the seventh, Franco sliced a line drive to left field, where the ball tipped off Jake Bauers’ outstretched glove. As Bauers chased the ball around the warning track, Díaz hustled around from first and crossed the plate without sliding -- and without a tag from catcher Jose Trevino. Díaz was initially ruled out, but that call was overturned after the Rays challenged.

The Yankees then put runners on second and third with one out in the eighth, but Poche escaped by getting Bader to pop out and striking out pinch-hitter Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Jason Adam worked around a two-out single in the ninth to pick up his third save.

“I always say every game against the Yankees is always an adrenaline game,” Díaz said through Navarro. “About 2,000 percent adrenaline right there on that one.”