ST. PETERSBURG -- The sight was an all-too-familiar one for Tampa Bay. With a one-run lead in the ninth inning, Colin Poche surrendered a game-tying home run to Aaron Hicks.
The previous three games were all losses -- all coming when the bullpen faltered in the ninth inning or later. History was beginning to repeat itself.
But then in the bottom of the frame, Travis d'Arnaud came to the plate and took things into his own hands against Chad Green, stroking a line drive into the front row of the right-center-field seats for a walk-off home run to give the Rays a 4-3 victory over the Yankees on Saturday at Tropicana Field.
“I was just looking for a pitch to do damage on, and fortunately that was the right pitch to hit and I made sure I kept my eye on it,” d’Arnaud said. “I’m still on cloud nine right now. We definitely needed that after they beat us [six] times in a row, and to be able to put a stop to that is big.”
Given the context of how the home run happened, and given that Tampa Bay had dropped its previous three games, the knock could be a potential season-changing moment.
“It was good to see the guys respond -- it’s been a trying couple weeks, a trying homestand and a trying series,” manager Kevin Cash said as the Rays climbed to 7 1/2 games behind New York in the American League East. “This team showed a lot today coming back and finding a way to get a ‘W.’”
It was instead almost Nate Lowe that had the decisive homer. Entering the bottom of the seventh, New York had seized a 2-1 lead as Yankees starter CC Sabathia was tossing a gem. But a hanging slider with a man on and two outs was just the offering that Lowe was looking for, and he hammered it over the right-field fence for his second career home run and a 3-2 Rays lead.
“I figured [Sabathia] was going to go back to the breaking ball there with as good as his stuff is, but he made a mistake and I got to it and it worked out for us,” said Lowe, who got payback on Sabathia after being hit by a pitch in his first at-bat.
For Lowe, it was his second straight game with a long ball. In Friday’s loss to the Yankees, he hit his first career homer off All-Star Masahiro Tanaka during a 10-pitch at-bat. The Rays’ No. 9 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, hadn’t homered in his first 11 games in The Show.
On top of d’Arnaud and Lowe hitting their clutch homers, Blake Snell had an encouraging last start before the All-Star break, going five innings and giving up just a run on five hits and two walks to go along with five strikeouts.
A pressure-filled sequence in the top of the fifth was a pivotal one for the left-hander after he loaded the bases with one out.
With a 2-2 count on the fearsome Aaron Judge, Snell fired in a fastball that Judge hit high but not very deep. Avisaíl García caught the ball in right field and fired home to hold the runner at third. Snell then retired Hicks on a grounder back to the mound.
“It’s big, especially because it was the big hitters that were coming up,” Snell said. “For me to find a way to succeed against them in tough times, you get excited about that. But I’m frustrated that I allowed them to have those opportunities, with the two walks, that shouldn’t happen.”
The only blemish on his line was a second-inning homer that Brett Gardner easily sent over the right-field fence.
Then there was the bullpen, which had been uncharacteristically shaky the previous three games during the losing streak. José Alvarado came in to pitch the top of the seventh for the Rays and immediately allowed the first two hitters to reach base. Some slick fielding by shortstop Willy Adames resulted in a double play and gave Alvarado a chance to escape the jam.
However, a walk to Judge put runners on the corners and Hicks singled in Gio Urshela to give New York a 2-1 lead. Alvarado was then visited by Cash and a trainer on the mound before departing. Over his last five innings in seven games, the left-hander has given up eight earned runs and seen his ERA balloon to 5.06.
The team announced after the game that Alvarado suffered a right oblique strain and could miss “significant time,” according to Cash. The lefty is scheduled to undergo an MRI on Sunday.