Yanks need to improve at Tropicana to stay afloat
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Yankees would have preferred a better venue to prove they're for real this season than the snake pit that Tropicana Field has become for them.
They're here for a telltale weekend, out to prove they're legitimate contenders for the postseason and that their five-game winning streak wasn't because they were playing the dregs of the AL East, the Toronto Blue Jays.
But after the Rays bombarded the Yanks with four homers, brilliant pitching by rookie Chris Archer and easily won, 7-2, on Friday night, the jury is out on whether New York's recent turnaround can be sustained.
Certainly, Tropicana Field is not the place to do it.
The Yankees have won just five of the 20 games they've played at the Trop since July 21, 2011.
The Rays, who are 42-23 at home this season, shrugged off a 1-0 deficit after the first inning, took a 3-1 lead on Jose Lobaton's three-run blast in the second and never looked back. With Boston's 2-0 loss to the Dodgers, the Rays moved into first place ahead of the Red Sox by percentage points.
Two weeks ago, the Yanks were in the midst of losing eight of 11 games and falling 11 1/2 games behind the first-place Red Sox. A trip to the postseason seemed like a dream.
But by winning 10 of their last 12 games since Aug. 11 and with the Alex Rodriguez distraction pushed aside, the Yankees appeared back in the thick of the race. One of the two AL Wild Card berths seemed within reach for what had become a lost season.
And then the Rays cast a shadow on that, sending a strong message Friday night. The next two games in this series become extremely important -- for both teams.
"We delivered a Friday-night message. That's it, man," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I have a lot of respect for what they're doing. They've got two really good pitchers [CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova] coming up. You have to pitch well to be as hot as they were."
It won't get any easier for the Yankees on Saturday as the Rays send David Price, who's won five consecutive decisions, against Sabathia, who's struggled lately.
Ask Yanks manager Joe Girardi why his team has had such a difficult time at Tropicana and he says it's, "because the Rays play extremely well here. They're a talented team. We're not the only team that's struggled here."
In losing four games to the Yankees, the Blue Jays -- they were 0-10 at Yankee Stadium this year -- played like they're ready to pack their bags and call it a season. John Gibbons went so far as to say his Blue Jays might have problems beating Little League teams.
So, it's important to mention that eight of those 10 wins during their turnaround came at the expense of teams with losing records -- the Angels and Blue Jays. A plus is the fact the circus that has surrounded Rodriguez since he returned on Aug. 5 has been, for the moment, put aside and the focus has been on the field.
Rodriguez, of course, is playing as he appeals his 211-game suspension for violations of Major League Baseball's drug policy.
To his credit, A-Rod has silenced his attorneys, putting an end to the raging rhetoric.
Friday night, as he went hitless in four at-bats and only hit the ball out of the infield once, he received thunderous boos from the Tropicana crowd of 24,239 each time he batted.
"I've shut everything down," Rodriguez said. "I think the best thing to do, for all of us, is to focus on the game. We're in the middle of a pennant race, so I want to put the focus back on baseball."
A-Rod said that he will no longer be answering questions not related to baseball and didn't Friday. He's hitting .262 with two homers since his return.
Girardi admits the Yanks have a great opportunity this weekend.
"We have to continue to play well because they're playing extremely well," the Yankees manager said. "They pitch, they hit, they play really good defense."
The biggest problem for the Yankees on Friday night was that starter Hiroki Kuroda struggled.
"If I could have stopped with that one homer and not given up other homers, then I could have given my team a chance," he said through a translator. "I couldn't do that and I feel really bad about it."
He added that losing with so much on the line this late in the season was even more difficult.
Girardi, as he sat behind his desk in the visiting manager's office, kept repeating it was just one game.
"You got to be able to turn the page. It's one game," he said. "You got to go out and play the game tomorrow and find a way to win that game tomorrow. We didn't score a lot of runs, but I thought we hit the ball pretty hard. [The Rays] played good defense."
Pausing, he added: "Tomorrow is a new day."
There are a lot of people in baseball, including Commissioner Bud Selig, who are pushing for the Rays to get a new ballpark.
The Yankees and Girardi should be atop that list.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.