ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — In June, when their grand experiment was in its nascent stages, the Tampa Bay Rays made a full commitment to the reimagining of their pitching staff when the Yankees arrived in town.
With the Rays then 17 games out of first place, what could it matter?
It turned out to be a rousing success, with the Rays using 18 pitchers in a three-game sweep of the Yankees, who then had the best record in the majors.
The new-age use of their pitching staff — where starters became relievers and relievers became abbreviated starters (or openers) — not only sparked a turnaround for the Rays, but it caught the fancy of teams like the Oakland Athletics, the Texas Rangers and the Minnesota Twins.
But the greatest stamp of legitimacy may have come on Monday night, when the Yankees turned to it in a 4-1 victory over the Rays, a twist that was doubly painful. It also eliminated the Rays from playoff contention.
The Yankees may not have the gumption to innovate in their Bronx fishbowl, but they are quick to jump after others have. They followed the Rays several years ago with the heavy use of shifts, they have embraced the use of curveballs, and they have one of baseball’s largest analytics staffs.
“There’s no question that they started this and had a lot of success and teams have followed,” Manager Aaron Boone said of the Rays. “So it’s triggered a lot of conversation, a lot of people thinking that this is kind of an option that makes sense on varying degrees for different clubs.”
Reliever Jonathan Holder threw one inning in the first start of his major league career and was followed by seven other pitchers. The strategy helped the Yankees secure a much-needed victory — as they try to secure home-field advantage for the wild-card playoff — and a much-needed extra day of rest for their starters.
“I came in from the bullpen and tried to do everything the same,” said Holder, who walked two batters with one out in the first inning, but rebounded to strike out Tommy Pham and retired Joey Wendle on a liner to right field. “We’ve noticed that it’s played out well for them. I don’t know how much of that is opening or pushing people back. I didn’t know we were going to do that until today.”
Holder was followed to the mound by Stephen Tarpley, Sonny Gray, Chad Green, David Robertson, Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Zach Britton. The group combined to allow just two hits and struck out 13 batters.
“I don’t think it’s fair for them to say a ‘bullpen day,’” Rays Manager Kevin Cash said. “More like a ‘closer day.’ They all just kind of come in there and have wipeout stuff from the second that Green steps on the mound.”
Gray, the former starter, was the only Yankees pitcher who threw more than one inning and the only one to allow a run — or a hit. The Rays pushed across their run in the fourth after Pham doubled into the left-field corner and advanced to third on a passed ball by Gary Sanchez — who had two, raising his major-league-leading total to 17.
Wendle followed with the Rays’ other hit, a dubious one. First baseman Luke Voit snagged Wendle’s grounder, but after holding Pham at third he tossed late to Gray, who had covered first. Brandon Lowe then grounded into a double play that scored Pham.
Before the game, Boone said it was unlikely the Yankees would try to bullpen their way through the wild-card playoff. Instead, they planned to choose from among J.A. Happ, Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka, the next three starters against the Rays.
Though the Yankees pitchers throttled the Rays on Monday, it was not quite a spotless attack. They walked six batters, and Robertson was spared two runs when Brett Gardner clattered into the center-field wall while catching a drive from Lowe to end the sixth inning.
But the Yankees, who had lost five of their previous six games here, were good enough to beat the Rays at their own game.
Diego Castillo, a reliever, opened the game for the Rays and navigated two scoreless innings. Andrew McCutchen gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead when he homered to left off Hunter Wood in the third. After the Rays evened the score, the Yankees scored twice in the fifth and once in the seventh off Ryan Yarbrough — a left-handed starter who does not start.
Gardner blooped a two-out single to center field that scored Aaron Judge and then came around on Giancarlo Stanton’s double to increase the lead to 3-1. The Yankees added another run when McCutchen and Judge hit back-to-back doubles with one out in the seventh.
It was enough, with the way the Yankees were pitching, to ensure that they would maintain at least a one-and-a-half-game lead over the Athletics, who played late Monday night in Seattle.
Of course, a lot can change in the final week.
Consider that on Saturday, Aaron Hicks doubled into the left-field corner, chasing Didi Gregorius home with a headfirst slide for the winning run. By the end of Monday night, they were both out of commission: Gregorius sidelined with a slight ligament tear in his right wrist that he incurred on the slide home and Hicks leaving Monday with a tight left hamstring while running out a ground ball.
Hicks, who will have a magnetic resonance imaging test as a precautionary measure, said that he had been feeling sore for several days but that the Yankees coaches were unaware until he was stretching in the outfield the next inning.
Gregorius, who wore a neoprene wrap on his wrist, reported feeling much better on Monday after receiving a cortisone shot and maintained that he expected to return before the wild-card playoff. But Boone struck a more cautious tone.
“He felt significantly better, obviously, and some of the range-of-motion things that he’s been able to do,” Boone said. “But I would also temper it and I think the true indicator will come Wednesday when he gets re-evaluated.”
The Yankees replaced Gregorius on Monday with Adeiny Hechavarria, a slick fielder and middling hitter whom they acquired in late August when Gregorius was sidelined with a heel injury. But Boone indicated he could field a more offensive-minded lineup by sliding Gleyber Torres from second base to shortstop and utilizing Neil Walker at second base.
It was hardly the most interesting manager’s decision of the night.
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