BUFFALO — Was this a parting gift or more of a first night of Hanukkah sort of thing? An exorcism or an appetizer?
Either way, the Rays scouts monitoring Wednesday night’s action at Sahlen Field had to think, “This is the way the Yankees looked when they played us!”
Yes, the Rays’ first American League East title since 2010 became official downstate, shortly after 10 o’clock, when Tampa Bay disposed of the Mets, 8-5 at Citi Field. Just in case the Mets had helped out their intracity pals, however, the Yankees executed the old belt-and-suspenders fail-safe on Tampa Bay’s behalf by playing one of their worst games of the season, an embarrassing, 14-1 defeat to the Blue Jays that marked their third blowout loss in four games (and ended 13 minutes after the Mets-Rays game).
“We’re a better baseball team than we showed out there tonight,” a clearly annoyed Aaron Boone said.
Now we can formally notate the Yankees’ regular season, COVID-shortened and all, as a disappointment, a failure to build on last year’s AL East crown (which was their first since 2012). Now we turn our full attention to whether the Yankees can redeem themselves — for this season, for their last 10 years of October letdowns and for this godawful night — by winning it all.
Short answer: Of course they can. They’re good enough. As this game exemplified, though, many obstacles await them.
Start with the increasing likelihood that the Yankees will have to play next week’s wild-card series on the road. At 32-24, the AL’s fifth seed, they reside two games behind the White Sox (34-22), who fell into the fourth seed Wednesday as the Twins (35-22) leapt over them into the AL Central penthouse. Even if the Yankees catch up to the White Sox in these final days of the schedule, they’d lose a tiebreaker by virtue of the Chisox owning a superior intra-divisional record (currently 25-14) to the Yankees (23-16). The Yankees could win that tiebreaker with the Twins (23-17 in the AL Central), though they now trail Minnesota by 2 ½ games.
Then turn to who likely would await the Yankees, if they survive the wild-card round, in the AL Division Series: The Rays, the current top seed, who messed the Yankees up to the tune of 8-2 in 10 games.
“We’ll see ’em again,” Luke Voit vowed late Wednesday of his team’s top current rival.
This ultra-weird campaign has deemed it awfully difficult to put your finger on the pulse of a club, and the Yankees represent as big a mystery since we all wondered who framed Roger Rabbit. From the 16-6 burst out of the gate to the 5-15 plummet to the defibrillator-like 10-0 rebound to getting outscored, 36-20 in these last four — and that’s including a 12-1 win! — these Yankees have lacked the consistency of their prior two seasons under Boone.
This game exemplified the “down” portions of their roller coaster, as the Yankees committed four errors (two by Gary Sanchez and one each by Gleyber Torres and Luke Voit), letting down Masahiro Tanaka in a big way, and went 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position, including getting nothing out of a bases-loaded, no-outs rally in the fifth when the game remained winnable. No wonder Voit said, “That was not Yankee baseball at all. … It was almost like we were the Bad News Bears.”
Will this mark a farewell to alarms? Have the Yankees gotten the funk out of their system, ready to elevate from second place to a parade?
“I know we’re capable of really special baseball,” Boone said, “and we’ve got to find that.”
“The goal at the end of the year is to win the championship and I guess the division as well,” Clint Frazier said. “We didn’t accomplish that, but we still have the ability to accomplish the other one.”
If regular-season disappointment begets more October heartbreak, then this will go down as one sour mini-season, with no promises of sweet redemption in 2021.