The Yankees lost again on Sunday to Tampa Bay, 4-2, a drearily routine result in an oddly lopsided rivalry. The Rays pulled their usual pitching voodoo, with an opener drafted in the 45th round and a closer with no career saves. The pitcher who worked most of the game has one of the slowest fastballs in the sport.
This is what the Rays do, over and over, against the Yankees. They have won 18 of the last 23 games between the teams, dating to September 2019 and including last fall's victory in the division series. Even when the Yankees start Gerrit Cole, whom they lured with the richest pitching contract in baseball history, the Rays usually win.
Counting Sunday, the Yankees have won only two of Cole's six starts against Tampa Bay. The Yankees have three times the payroll of the Rays, but cannot break the spell of their anonymous pitching wizards.
"No matter who they have going out here, typically Tampa is a challenging team; they're really good at limiting runs," Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said after the Rays held his offense to 11 hits in a weekend sweep. "But we're also, by and large, healthy and obviously very capable."
Is it obvious, though? By reputation and recent history, the Yankees should have a thunderous offense. They led the American League in runs per game in 2020 and brought almost everyone back. But as they've staggered to a 5-10 record this season, the worst in the American League, their problems have gone deeper than a frustrating matchup with the Rays.
As a team, they've played about the equivalent of a full season for a position player: 553 plate appearances, enough to qualify for a batting title. Their collective average is .210, with a .296 on-base percentage and a .346 slugging percentage.
Few players ever get the chance to be so bad for so long. Only one AL player in Boone's lifetime has had 550 plate appearances in a season with lower marks in average, on-base and slugging: Billy Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles in 1988. That was the year he posed for his infamous baseball card with an obscenity scrawled on the knob of his bat.
For Yankees fans, this team must inspire similar salty language. The Yankees have not started this poorly in 24 years, and besides the miserable hitting, they've been hurt by sloppy fielding and shaky starting pitching. In the 11 games not started by Cole, Yankees starters are 1-6 with a 6.39 earned run average.
In fairness, the Yankees are down a starter (Luis Severino), a slugger (Luke Voit) and a setup man (Zack Britton), who are all recovering from injuries. But almost every team is missing an impact player or two, and only one — the Colorado Rockies — has a worse record than the Yankees.
The calendar is their salvation, of course; the Yankees have not even played 10 percent of their 162-game schedule. But the angst is palpable: Fans pelted the field with baseballs on Friday, and then Boone voiced his displeasure to the team in a postgame clubhouse meeting. But the Yankees lost twice more.
"I've been on some teams in Pittsburgh that were in the playoff hunt at the All-Star break and the wheels completely fell off in the second half, so it's a really long year, a lot can happen," said starter Jameson Taillon, adding that he was eager for his injured teammates to return.
"I think everyone in the room has the belief that we're going to turn it around and we're going to be a really, really good team still. But at the same time, every game needs to have that urgency. We can't afford to just keep going about our business."
The Yankees will make at least one roster move before Tuesday, when Taillon starts against Atlanta in the Bronx: First baseman Jay Bruce announced his retirement on Sunday. Bruce, a three-time All-Star, was hitting .118 with one homer and said he could no longer play to his standards. He made sure to sign the clubhouse wall, where everyone who has ever played for the Yankees is welcome to add his name.
"I don't have a plan for what's next," said Bruce, 34, who hit 319 home runs, tied with Cecil and Prince Fielder (yep, they had the same total) on the career list. "My son starts kindergarten in August, so I will be a shuttle service, at the very least.
"As far as baseball goes — I love baseball, anyone who knows me knows that I am such a big fan of baseball, I always have been. I go home at night and I watch baseball. Some people will think that's crazy, some people think it's awesome."
It's awesome, no doubt — and if Bruce really loves the sport, he'll stay up late to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, especially when they play each other, as they did over the weekend. That rivalry is by far the most compelling one in the game; so much talent and personality bunched up the same division.
The Yankees-Rays games have felt vastly different because the Yankees have barely shown up. For now, they are their own biggest rival. They must hold their noses and keep slogging ahead.
"We have too much experience and too many good players that have gone through adversity before to really be surprised by it," Cole said, adding, "You're going to have to strap your boots on and wade through the mud."