Six dominant innings from James Paxton had the Yankees thinking ahead to a happy flight, each of the left-hander’s 11 strikeouts swelling his confidence level. There was no question in manager Aaron Boone’s mind about giving him the ball to begin the seventh, and that was where the Yanks’ fortunes turned on Sunday afternoon.
Paxton spiked his glove to the dugout bench after Mike Brosseau and Brandon Lowe homered to tie the game, spoiling a magnificent outing. In the ninth inning, Zack Britton permitted a walk-off hit to Michael Perez as the Yankees absorbed a 4-3 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field.
“It's a tough one,” Paxton said. “It was going really well until the seventh inning rolled around. I made a few bad pitches and they made me pay, which is too bad. That last inning was unfortunate.”
Jonathan Holder kept the game tied after Paxton’s stumble, working 1 2/3 scoreless innings with the help of a video-reviewed double play that ended the eighth. Britton permitted a hit, wild pitch and walk that set up Perez’s deciding single as the Yankees completed a 2-5 road trip, dropping three of four to their division rivals.
“It definitely stings,” Boone said. “We had a chance to really salvage the trip and they put some good at-bats together to get back in the game. We’ll take away a lot of good from the way Pax threw the ball and regroup on the off-day [Monday]. This is a huge stepping stone for him, I think.”
Making his third start of the season, Paxton worked rapidly, showcasing increased fastball velocity as he continues to return to form following back surgery performed in February. He generated seven whiffs on 25 swings at his heater on Sunday, averaging 92.3 mph and touching 93.9 mph. Paxton had just six whiffs on 37 swings at his fastball through his first two starts, when it averaged 91.8 mph.
“Seeing their swings early, I could see I had some good ride on the fastball today,” Paxton said. “Getting those foul balls, getting those swings and misses definitely gave me the confidence to keep going back to it.”
Paxton permitted one hit through six scoreless innings and had thrown only 77 pitches when Boone sent him out for the seventh. José Martínez raked a leadoff double and, one out later, Brosseau slugged a two-run homer. With Holder warming, Boone stayed with Paxton and Lowe tied the game with a solo shot.
Boone acknowledged that he would second-guess that call, but he said that the Yankees planned on having Paxton throw 85 to 90 pitches. Lowe’s homer came on Paxton’s 87th.
“He’s obviously been grinding hard,” Boone said. “He had a couple of tough starts to start the season and I know how that weighs on you. As we've seen him here in his Yankees career, any time he's faced adversity, he’s stared it down and answered the call. I'm proud of the effort he put forward.”
The Yankees had difficulty taking advantage of opportunities throughout the series, an issue that was highlighted on Sunday.
Mike Ford picked up an RBI the hard way in the first inning, hit on the left elbow by a Charlie Morton pitch that forced in the game’s first run. They were denied further until the fifth, when Rays center fielder Manuel Margot dropped a two-out Gio Urshela fly ball, allowing two runs to score.
“As long as I can remember, they've always played us tough, especially down here at the Trop,” Brett Gardner said. “They've just got a good team. They've got good pitching. Today we had some opportunities. We just need to be better collectively as a unit.”
New York went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, stranding nine men. The Yanks scored 14 runs in the series, but eight of them came in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, when Ford, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge all homered.
“When you come here and play these guys, runs are going to be at a premium,” Boone said. “They're very good at run prevention. They have a lot of quality arms and they match up really well, so they make it difficult.”
Gleyber Torres made a terrific defensive play in the ninth, throwing to third base on a fielder’s-choice grounder to cut down Brosseau for the first out.
The impact of that play was reduced, however, when Britton threw a wild pitch past catcher Gary Sánchez and issued a walk to Margot. Britton absolved Sánchez for the wild pitch, saying that “not many guys are going to block that ball,” and instead lamented the sinker that Perez lined into right field.
“I was a pitch away,” Britton said. “If I execute that pitch, I think we get back into the dugout. Then maybe I’d kind of settle down and go back out for another [inning]. I just didn't execute many pitches today. It was frustrating. We wanted to split that series.”