Yanks unable to 'send message' in loss to TB

April 10th, 2021

The Yankees dealt with injury on Friday in the form of Aaron Judge’s absence, and they had to watch as the Rays revealed banners to celebrate their 2020 American League East title and AL championship.

Then the game started, and the Yankees were tormented by the Rays once again en route to a 10-5 loss.

Aaron Hicks mentioned pregame that the Rays are just another team “in our way,” and while that might be true, few teams can gouge the Yankees as severely as the reigning AL champs. It happened last year in the regular season, when Tampa Bay took eight of 10 matchups. It happened again in the postseason, when the Rays emerged victorious in a five-game AL Division Series clash.

And on Friday, in front of a reduced-capacity sellout crowd at Tropicana Field, it happened again when the Yankees watched their dazzling pitching staff surrender a bundle of runs for the first time this season.

New York and Tampa Bay will see each other 17 more times (including Saturday, with first pitch scheduled for 1:10 p.m. ET), but this was a chance for the Yankees to start the series right and make a statement against a team that dominated them in the past season-plus.

“I mean, we always want to send a message,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “We always want you to know who you’re playing. But the message is sent throughout the year with our play, and we have to play consistent and play well. And if we do that, we’ll be the team we expect to be.”

Corey Kluber wasn’t around last year to see the Rays batter the Yankees, but he had a front row seat for it this time. The right-hander was chased after just 2 1/3 innings, having surrendered five runs (three earned) on five hits and two walks. Kluber faced some hard luck in the second, seeing three consecutive batters reach safely on balls with expected batting averages below .200, per Statcast. Two of those came around to score.

“That’s one of the funny things about baseball,” Kluber said. “I actually felt better about the way I executed pitches today, the way I felt out there. All you can do as a pitcher, honestly, is try to execute pitches. Once it leaves your hand, you’ve gotta flush whatever happens and move on to the next one.”

Through two starts, Kluber’s sinker has hovered around 90 mph and his four-seamer has sat in the 88-90 mph range. Those numbers are a couple of ticks below where he was in 2019, the last time he had multiple outings (91.3 mph for the sinker, 92 mph for the four-seamer). Last season, Kluber made just one start before tearing a muscle in his throwing shoulder, but he says velocity is “probably the furthest thing from my mind.”

Kluber gave way to reliever Nick Nelson, who entered a bases-loaded situation with a 4-3 lead, and on his second offering, allowed a two-run double to left. New York never recovered from there.

This marked the first time in 2021 that the Yankees’ pitching staff didn’t do enough to keep the team in the game. Entering Friday, the Yanks had the best ERA in the Majors (1.74), the best bullpen ERA in the AL (1.00), and they had allowed three earned runs or fewer in their first six games for the third time since earned runs became a statistic in 1913.

Offensively, Hicks offered one of the few bright spots by crushing a 406-foot homer in the third inning for his first extra-base hit of the season. But after Hicks’s blast, which capped the Yankees’ highest-scoring inning of the season (four runs), New York managed just one walk and no hits in its next 15 at-bats.

The day belonged to the Rays, and so has this series in recent memory. The pregame banner ceremony hammered that point home.

“It’s never something you want to see, but you understand before going out there that that’s what we gotta do,” Yankees designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton said in regard to the banner reveal. “It happened, so you’ve gotta acknowledge it.”

Right. It’s been acknowledged, and now it’s game on to see who’ll raise the 2021 banner next spring.