On Friday morning, the New York Yankees were the hottest team in baseball. They were fresh off a four-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays – their fourth consecutive series victory – and had racked up 13 wins in 17 games. The offense, for so long an impediment, was suddenly the engine propelling the team, and the Yankees, late to the show but here now in earnest, felt like the Yankees.
But then the schedule brought them to Tampa Bay and to Tropicana Field, which, for the hottest team in baseball, had to feel like being sent to the Principal’s office for answering correctly in class. A dome of discontent for the Yankees, Tropicana Field has the pulse of a hibernating bear and the glow of a lunar eclipse, and inspires such heavy feelings of torpor that Joe Maddon has been known to sleep from innings three to seven. On Sunday evening, when the Yankees staggered out of the stadium, they were no longer the hottest team in baseball.
They were crushed on Friday night, despite sending Hiroki Kuroda to the hill, and were broken on Saturday night, the sting exacerbated by another C.C. Sabathia collapse. When Fernando Rodney retired Brett Gardner to send the Yankees to their second loss in two games, their postseason flame had been doused to a smoldering pile of ashes. A third loss on Sunday would be the bucket of water, the final hiss of smoke, and the quiet end of the night.
So when Ivan Nova gave up a first-inning run this afternoon before loading the bases with one out, the Yankees could feel the noose tightening around their necks. They’d only scored two runs both Friday and Saturday, and with a crooked deficit looming, a debilitating series sweep was beginning to simmer. But Nova escaped further damage with a 5-2-3 double play – started by the sure-handed Mark Reynolds – and with that, a collective sigh of relief came from the Yankees’ dugout.
It may well have been the most important out of the game. The Yankees, though quiet at the plate through the first two games, were not undone by a 1-run deficit. Their hot-hitting ways entering the series were still stoked, and Nova was sure to figure himself out having now wriggled out of trouble. Three or four runs, on the other hand, would have sent the Yankees’ train careening down the track and the club running after it, their destination decided and their fate sealed.
The double play allowed them to breathe, gather their bearings in the dugout, and channel the intensity they needed to win a game like this. That’s the thing about playing at The Trop. In order to beat the game Tampa Bay Rays, you need to scrap and claw with tenacity, play every bit the part of a fighter, and yet the stadium can only be counted on to lull you to sleep. If you don’t find competitive inspiration from within, you won’t find it anywhere else.
Where the found it was in a fourth-inning Robinson Cano homerun to left field. Held hitless until that point – save Cano – the Yankees were jolted awake by their second baseman’s solo knock, and the offense began to percolate in the innings to follow. They nearly tacked on more runs in the fourth on consecutive singles by Curtis Granderson and Eduardo Nunez, and then showed some moxie in the 5th when Brett Gardner grinded out a 12-pitch walk. Cano put the Yankees ahead an inning later when he roped a double to right center to score Ichiro, then gift-wrapped the Rays an out stretching to third because, perhaps, he felt he was making it look too easy.
When Evan Longoria, who went 6-13 with five RBI in the series, hit his third homerun of the weekend to bring the Rays back in the bottom half of the sixth, thoughts of Saturday night trickled into the Yankees’ dugout. They could ill afford to let another win slip away, as much for their psyche as their position in the standings. But Joe Maddon, craving a sweep, trotted out vaunted arm after vaunted arm from his bullpen, forcing the Yankees’ relievers to throw up zeroes of their own. From Shawn Kelley and David Robertson to Joba Chamberlain and Boone Logan, they rose to the task and kept the team alive.
Finally, in the 11th inning, the Yankees scored a third run for the first time this weekend. It took them a few extra outs, but when Alfonso Soriano doubled to left, stole third, and came home on a Granderson sac fly, it sure was rewarding. The one-run cushion was all Mariano Rivera would need, as the closer set down the Rays’ 2-3-4 hitters in order to nail down the win.
Even with the victory Sunday, of course, the Yankees still lost this series. But if there is one game to win in a series to be lost, it is the last one. For instead of boarding the charter flight to Toronto ruing a blown opportunity to win the series, they take solace in knowing they salvaged it. They know they have still won five of their last seven, and 14 of their last 20, which is about the pace they need to maintain if the postseason is a possibility. And if you’re only as good as your last game, and the last 20 don’t matter, then the Yankees are 1 for 1 and hot once more.