SAN DIEGO — It’s official: Yankees-Rays plays anywhere.
It’s also official: Four days off didn’t reduce the 2020 Yankees’ October mojo one bit. It seems to have only strengthened it.
Petco Park’s first-ever American League Division Series game proved no bubble trouble for Aaron Boone’s bunch, who bettered the Rays, 9-3, in the tighter-than-the-final-score opener of this best-of-five competition Monday. Rookie Deivi Garcia will take the mound Tuesday, the youngest Yankees to ever start a postseason game, as the owner of a 1-0 advantage in games and his team feeling as good about itself as it has all season.
“There’s no question the guys have really played well,” manager Aaron Boone said. “A lot of big pitches, big defensive plays, with the whole lineup working well together, we’ve been able to really break through. I think the guys are really focused, and hopefully we can continue it [Tuesday].”
We already knew that this surging rivalry didn’t need fans to fuel it; to the contrary, the empty Yankee Stadium and Tropicana Field in August and September made it easier for the two sides to hear all chirps about every real and perceived violation as the Rays prevailed in eight of their 10 battles. Yet this neutral-site setup here on the other coast, motivated by the same desire to contain the novel coronavirus as the fan-free regular-season contests, represented some next-level weirdness, the two clubs reconvening at a ballpark that each visits for roughly three series every 13 years.
“It is odd, it is odd. Neither one of our parks and no fans,” Giancarlo Stanton acknowledged. “But this is the year of the unorthodox. At the same time, the games are just as important.”
And just as riveting. The Yankees and Rays played the high-quality brand of ball that we’ve come to expect all season. And the Yankees excelled in a way that we’ve come to expect for … three games. They are now 3-0 in this postseason, displaying a toughness, crispness and offensive ferocity that barely declared itself during the haphazard, reduced regular season.
With only bubbled family members, team and league officials and scattered media in the stands, the clubs didn’t even bother with the traditional baseline roster introductions, nor did Boone and his Rays counterpart Kevin Cash — hardly Zoom pals after Cash publicly bashed Boone in the wake of Aroldis Chapman’s dangerously high and tight pitch to Mike Brosseau on Sept. 1 — exchange any on-field greetings. Rays third-base coach Rodney Linares represented his team and Boone his during the pregame home-plate confab with the umpires.
Once Rays ace Blake Snell threw the first pitch, however, it seemed like old times, or maybe not old enough for the Rays.
The Yankees struck first, third and fifth, hanging in there when ace Gerrit Cole gave up a pair of leads, a two-run top of the fifth giving the “visitors” the lead for good as Cole’s personal catcher Kyle Higashioka and the mighty and powerful Aaron Judge each popped a solo homer (maybe homers aren’t all bad after all?).
Cole survived a tense bottom of the fifth, intentionally walking his nemesis (and former Yankee) Ji-Man Choi with Rays on first and second and two outs to go after Manuel Margot, whom he fanned with a 100 mph fastball. For all of the Yankees’ offensive fireworks, their dugout never got louder than that moment.
Speaking of offensive fireworks, the Yankees’ bats put the game out of reach with a five-run ninth, the last four coming on a grand slam by Stanton, who now has gone deep in all three Yankees playoff games. He especially likes playing at Petco, pretty close to where he grew up, having stroked nine homers in 20 games as well as winning the Home Run Derby here in 2016.
“That was big,” Stanton said of the entire game, which set so many precedents for uniqueness yet sure didn’t prevent the Yankees from making themselves at home.