ST. PETERSBURG — All things considered, the Rays felt they couldn’t have been in a better position to win Sunday’s game and complete a sweep that would have further tightened the American League East race and the Yankees’ collars.
Trailing since Aaron Judge hit his 53rd homer on the game’s second pitch, the Rays had rallied in the ninth inning to cut the margin to one. With two outs, they had the tying run on third and the winning run on second with their hottest hitter, Yandy Diaz, at the plate.
“I don’t think there’s another guy on this team that anybody in here would rather have up than him in that situation,” shortstop Taylor Walls said.
But Diaz never got to swing the bat, and the Rays’ chances went down with him as they lost 2-1, dropping five games out of first rather than creeping within three.
Diaz took five pitches from Yankees reliever Clay Holmes to get to a full count, then was called out by home plate umpire Vic Carapazza on a 101.7-mph slider that Diaz thought was low.
And he showed that with a rare, for him, display of emotion.
Diaz — just named in Baseball America’s Best Tools survey to have the best strike-zone judgement among AL hitters — dropped his bat, put his hands on his head, raised his arms in frustration, shook his head, then slammed his helmet to the ground. The usually accommodating Diaz also declined to talk with reporters.
“You don’t have to go back to the video, just look at his reaction,” said teammate Manuel Margot, via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “He’s the type of guy that’s got a good eye at the plate and knows the strike zone. So just seeing that (reaction) gives you an idea of what the call was.”
Even Holmes hinted that it wasn’t a strike: “That was a great pitch. … That was good to get the sinker down. I’m not sure where it was at. But I’m glad we got the call there.”
Actually, the call didn’t decide the game because if Carapazza ruled it a ball Diaz would have walked and the Rays would have had the bases loaded. Then manager Kevin Cash would have decided whether to let slumping Ji-Man Choi hit or switch to the dangerous Harold Ramirez, who he had been saving.
The game shouldn’t have come down to the last pitch.
The Rays were shut down, and shut out, into the ninth by Yankees starter Frankie Montas and four relievers. They were unable to generate much offense and failed to convert what opportunities they had, most notably two on to start the seventh, just after Judge’s bloop double led to the Yankees’ second run.
In the ninth, they got a leadoff double from David Peralta, a one-out, pinch-hit RBI single by Francisco Mejia, and a two-out double by rookie Jonathan Aranda to put the tying and winning runs in scoring position with Diaz — hitting .436 over his last 10 games — at the plate until the third strike.
“We pitched well, they pitched well,” Cash said. “They got some big hits and our hits just came a little too late.”
As disappointing as it was to lose Sunday and not complete the sweep, the Rays took some solace in winning two out of three and the series, with a final regular-season meeting with the 80-54 Yankees next weekend in New York.
“(It would have) been nice to win all three, but they battled and they played good baseball,” Margot said. “Not just against them, but everybody else knows that we’ve been playing really good baseball this year and we’re here to play.”
And the Rays — who at 74-58 remain in the three-team AL wild-card field — have shown they plan to keep up their hot pursuit.
“I think we’ve had that clear the whole season, even through the ups and downs, everybody in here, I think the whole league knows that we’re not going to back away from anything,” Walls said.
“Every guy in here’s ready to play. We’re ready to compete no matter who the other team is or what uniform we’re playing against. Nobody in here is scared of anyone.”
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