SAN DIEGO – After losing eight of 10 games in a contentious regular-season series, the New York Yankees just can’t shake the AL East rival Tampa Bay Rays.
Not only will the Bronx Bombers face the Rays in the AL Division Series at Petco Park in one of MLB’s bubbles, but the teams that have a recent history of throwing at each others’ hitters are sharing the same resort hotel in northern San Diego County.
Outfielder Brett Gardner said he’s cordial when he passes Rays players at the hotel.
“Obviously it’s not ideal but it’s the cards that we’ve been dealt and I feel we’ve got a group of guys that’s very professional and just business as usual.”
Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier minced no words when he said: “They don’t like us, we don’t like them, and it’s going to continue to stay that way.”
Responded Gardner: “I think the feeling’s probably mutual.”
Game 1 is Monday night, when Yankees ace Gerrit Cole — a Southern California native — opposes Blake Snell, the 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner.
“They got the best of us this year, arguably the best team in baseball,” Gardner said of the Rays, the AL’s top seed. “They had a really good season, ran away with the division. Obviously it’s up to us to come out and play better against these guys.”
Snell said he’s not concentrating on the hard feelings between these teams in recent seasons.
“I just know they’re a very talented team that I’m looking forward to facing,” Snell said.
Here are some things to look for in the series:
Hard feelings between these teams date to spring training 2008. They hit a peak on Sept. 1 when Aroldis Chapman threw a 101 mph pitch near Mike Brosseau’s head. That led Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash to say, “I’ve got a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 miles an hour,” and the Rays began wearing blue T-shirts with four horses lined up behind a fence.
Chapman earned a three-game suspension that remains under appeal. Both managers were suspended for one game apiece.
Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka had hit Joey Wendle with a 95 mph fastball in the first inning. The next day, New York reliever Ben Heller was tossed for hitting Hunter Renfroe.
Cole grew up a Yankees fan in the heart of Angels and Dodgers territory, pitched at UCLA and then spent five seasons with Pittsburgh and two with Houston before realizing his dream when he signed a $324 million, nine-year contract with the Yankees.
Thanks to the oddness of 2020, he’ll make his second postseason start for the Yankees in an NL ballpark and could come back on short rest for a Game 5.
He went 2-0 with a 0.57 ERA in two starts against Tampa Bay in last year’s ALDS. He was 0-1 in three starts against them this regular season.
All-Star Rays outfielder Austin Meadows has been taking live at-bats and could return to the lineup after being sidelined by a left oblique strain since Sept. 18. Cash said the 25-year-old is “in a pretty good spot” but wouldn't say whether Meadows would be on the team's ALDS roster.
“We want to make sure that he’s running good and that the timing is as good as possible for us to make a decision,” Cash said.
The Yankees struggled with injuries and inconsistent play but also 10-game winning streak toward the end of the season. They’re at their best when they’re hitting home runs. First baseman Luke Voit led the majors with 22 and the Yankees were fifth in the majors with 94. They hit seven homers in a two-game sweep of the Cleveland Indians in a wild-card series.
“When we’ve got a full lineup and everyone’s healthy and they’re in there, we’ve got something special here in New York,” said slugger Aaron Judge, who is from Northern California. “That’s why we’re excited going into this postseason having everybody healthy. It’s a scary lineup we’ve got when everyone is full go.”
There was a lot of pre-series talk about learning the layout of Petco Park. While the Yankees haven’t played at Petco Park since 2016, the Rays played here last season and they have former Padres outfielders Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot to give them the lowdown on the big downtown ballpark.
Snell was injured last year when the Rays visited the Padres, but he loves Petco Park.
“The chance of my team coming to San Diego to play is rare. I’m taking it like something that’s pretty unique. It’s not going to happen again, most likely. I’m enjoying it because I love this stadium, I love this stadium.
“It’s going to be even more weird when it’s like, ‘The Tampa Bay Rays host the New York Yankees at San Diego.’ It’ll be weird but I’m enjoying it. It’s a beautiful place to be.”
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson