The pitchers' duel between Shane McClanahan and Nestor Cortes had been playing out as expected heading into the fifth inning at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees held a one-run lead thanks to an Aaron Judge homer off McClanahan, his 25th of the season, in the first inning. With two of the hottest pitchers in baseball on the mound, it was clear there would be little margin for error on either side.
The Yankees' opening came when Phillips dropped a routine fly ball from Josh Donaldson in the fifth. McClanahan retired the next two batters, which would have gotten him out of the inning if Phillips had caught Donaldson's ball. Instead, McClanahan fell behind Isiah Kiner-Falefa and the Rays intentionally walked him before Kyle Higashioka smacked a three-run homer to left field.
"It's unfortunate the way it played out," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "When you're playing a really good team like we are right now, these two games, there's just been a couple costly mistakes that seemed to add to runs."
Indeed, the first two games of this three-game set at Yankee Stadium featured some similar scenes.
An otherwise-excellent starting pitching performance was undone by sloppy outfield defense, with Phillips at fault on Wednesday after misplays by Manuel Margot and Randy Arozarena proved costly in the series opener. The Rays didn't get much of anything going against the Yankees' starter, managing only one run against Cortes a night after being shut out by Gerrit Cole. And there was a notable officiating moment, this time a 16-minute delay for an eighth-inning rules check rather than Tuesday's surprising (and pivotal) replay-review reversal.
In the end, the lesson was the same.
"If you make a mistake -- especially in the [American League] East, the best of the best -- you give more opportunity to really good players," Phillips said. "They're going to take advantage of it."
The last two nights, the Rays (35-27) have made mistakes. And the Yankees (46-16) have taken advantage, extending Tampa Bay's deficit in the division race to a season-high 11 games.
Donaldson led off the fifth with a fly ball to right-center field. Phillips and Margot both raced toward the ball, which Phillips called, and Phillips briefly took his eye off the ball to make sure he wouldn't crash into Margot. The ball wound up bouncing off Phillips' glove, and Donaldson reached second base on the error.
"Took my eye off it for the last second and dropped it, which is unacceptable," Phillips said. "Ball should have been caught."
Margot, a highly regarded defensive outfielder, botched a similarly routine play Tuesday night, and the Yankees capitalized to score the game's only two runs. Then it happened again Wednesday to Phillips, who entered the game in the third inning to replace the injured Kevin Kiermaier, and again the Yankees again pounced on the additional chance it afforded them.
"That comes down to my play," Phillips said. "Shane did a great job, pitched his butt off tonight, and it's unfortunate that's how it unfolded."
Unfortunate and a little bizarre, because the Rays have now seen three elite defensive outfielders make essentially the same mistake three games in a row: Kiermaier on Sunday in Minnesota, Margot on Tuesday and Phillips, who leads all Major League outfielders with nine Outs Above Average, in their latest loss.
"It is odd," Cash said.
"It happens. Philly makes that catch 99 times out of 100. He busts his butt every single day," McClanahan added. "I wanted to pick him up, and I let the team down."
McClanahan fell behind Kiner-Falefa, 3-0, and Cash elected to intentionally walk him and give McClanahan a fresh start against Higashioka. But McClanahan threw a first-pitch curveball in the dirt then said he tried to "steal a strike" with a 1-0 fastball to Higashioka, who hit it 369 feet out to left.
"I felt good. I made some bad pitches, made some good pitches," said McClanahan, who allowed only three hits and two walks while striking out seven over six innings in his first loss since April 30. "No excuses. I've got to be better when I take the ball."
The Rays kept it close, as Margot drove in a run in the sixth against Cortes and they scraped together two run-scoring hits off lefty reliever Lucas Luetge after the lengthy delay in the eighth. But once again, they had already dug a hole too deep to climb out of.
"They tagged us for a big home run there, and it was tough to overcome," Cash said. "I'm happy that the guys kind of battled back there and put pressure on them there at the end."