Yankees facing a must-win series with Rays to bolster wild card hopes

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox
Jul 25, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Red Sox left fielder Alex Verdugo (99) reacts after hitting a double during the eighth inning against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The optimistic Yankees fan can say that they’ve been here before — in 1978, to be exact, when they were eight games behind the Boston Red Sox through 98 games played. They were just beginning their miraculous run that would eventually see them catch up to and beat Boston en route to their 23rd world championship.

There’s not much room for optimism, however, when it comes to the 2021 Yankees through their first 98 games of the season. Whilst the 1978 team was 12 games above .500 and gathering momentum at that stage of the campaign, this 2021 squad sits just four games over .500, and has been dithering all season long.

Now, after a brutal series loss in Boston, the Yankees are heading to St. Petersburg, Florida for an even more important three-game set with the pesky Rays, and their hopes for the top wild card spot likely riding on the outcome. 

Sunday’s disaster in Boston was a soul-crushing 5-4 loss in which the Yankees saw a commanding four-run lead and a no-hit performance by Domingo German evaporated in a nightmarish bottom of the eighth inning. The Red Sox had beaten the Yankees three out of four at Fenway Park in a crucial series that the Bronx Bombers needed to win just to stay within arm’s reach of their arch-rivals.

Manager Aaron Boone struggled for answers at the post-game press conference Sunday.

“It’s a tough one that we’ve gotta get past, and obviously, heading into an off-day and a huge series coming up with Tampa, but year. Another extremely tough one,” Boone said. 

How tough will the Rays series be? Very, if recent history has taught us anything.

Tampa Bay is 8-5 against the Yankees this season; last year, they beat the Yankees 8 out of 10 games they played in the pandemic-shortened season. Fortunately, it appears the Yankees match up well with the Rays on paper this time around, based on their starting pitching. 

Tuesday night’s matchup sees the Yankees’ Jordan Montgomery lined up against the Rays’ Shane McClanahan. Montgomery has beaten the Rays in three of four starts this year, boasting a 3.85 ERA and striking out 26 batters in 23.1 innings pitched. McClanahan lost to the Yankees in his only start against them this year back on June 2.

Wednesday’s contest figures to be a bullpen game for the Yankees, with Nestor Cortes set to make the start against the Rays’ Michael Wacha, whose ERA is also over 5. But the bullpen was the Yankees’ downfall on Sunday afternoon, when Jonathan Loisaiga and Zach Britton couldn’t hold the lead for Domingo German; and on Thursday night, when Chad Green and a wild Brooks Kriske combined for a wild extra inning-loss in Beantown.

At least Yankees ace Gerrit Cole’s in line to make Thursday’s start against the Rays’ Luis Patino, who sports an ERA over 5 this season. 

Taking two of three from the Rays seems like a must for a Yankees team originally projected to contend for a world championship, but now struggling to stay alive in the wild card hunt. They sit two games back in the loss column behind the Oakland Athletics, so all hope for the Yankees isn’t lost with 64 games left to play.

The reality for the Yankees is, as the wise sage Yogi Berra once said, “it’s getting late early.” Left in the dust in the division title race, they must find a way to get back on their feet to contend for a postseason berth.

“These guys have handled and dealt with adversity before,” Boone said after Sunday’s loss. “We’ve dealt with it in this series and bounced back, and I know we’ll do it again.”