Commentary

Rays send message to aging Yankees

Young and restless, Tampa Bay primed to replace Red Sox as Bombers' biggest rival

Updated: May 20, 2010, 10:35 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The Rays were driving balls all over the Bronx, and running the bases as if the Yankees were locked in a perpetual state of defensive indifference, when Brian Cashman was reminded of a prediction he never wanted to pan out.

"You were the first guy who saw the Tampa Bay Rays as a gathering storm in the distance," I wrote in a text to the Yankees' general manager.

"Unfortunately," Cashman texted right back.

The GM fired the warning shot over his own franchise's head near the end of 2007, with Tampa Bay about to finish off a 96-loss season in the wake of a 101-loss season. Out of left field, Cashman started talking about the Rays as some frightening cross between the '27 Yankees and the NFL's '85 Bears.

The same Rays who had lost an average of 95 games under manager Lou Piniella. The same Rays who had never won more than 70 games in their 10-year existence.

Cashman raved about Tampa Bay's young and restless pitchers and position players, and he predicted they would assail the highest powers of the AL East sooner rather than later.

"It's not going to be a situation where they add 10 wins next year and 10 more the year after that," the GM said in the Sept. 28, 2007 edition of the Tampa Tribune. "It's not going to be slow. When it happens, it will happen quick. Now. That growing stuff is behind them now. It's going to come fast."

The Rays were in the World Series the following year, falling to the Phillies, and they were back in Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night as a first-place team running Harlem Globetrotter circles around their Washington General hosts.

Derek Jeter
AP Photo/Kathy WillensDerek Jeter's Yankees have tough time keeping up with Rays, who steal six bases Wednesday.

"We did everything right," Joe Maddon said after Rays 10, Yanks 6.

They did everything to the defending champs but slam a cream pie in A.J. Burnett's face.

"I just wanted to teach ourselves a lesson," Maddon said, "and that is that we can play well in this ballpark. ... You've got to play well in the playoff teams' venues."

The Rays needed only two Burnett pitches to take the lead on Jason Bartlett's homer. They stole six bases on Burnett and Francisco Cervelli, including four in a four-run fourth that saw the Yankees throw the ball around the way an old, bloodied fighter throws wild, no-hope hooks.

Tampa Bay is young, fast and athletic -- everything the Yankees are not. Aging and hobbling, their injuries mounting at a 2009 Mets pace, the Yanks were defenseless against the best team in baseball, a 29-11 team not inclined to show any mid-May mercy.

The final indignity came with Ben Zobrist on second in the eighth. Carlos Pena hit a deep fly ball to center, Brett Gardner made a brilliant diving catch near the wall, and Zobrist tagged up and raced all the way home.

"This is usually a hard place to play," Carl Crawford said of Yankee Stadium.

It's been hard on the Rays, a supple band of 20-somethings that finally gave the 30-something Yanks this cold, hard lesson in divisional diplomacy:

Forget the Red Sox. We're your worst nightmare now.

The home team apparently got the message. In the losing clubhouse, Derek Jeter compared the Rays to the Angels.

Not the Angels who made a lifetime's worth of fundamental errors in last year's ALCS.

The Angels who chased the Yankees out of October in 2002 and again in 2005.

"They're going to force you to throw them out," Jeter said.

The millions of New Yorkers who lost sight of the Rays after their 2009 nosedive forgot one thing: The '96 Yanks followed up their World Series title with a hangover season of their own (though they did make the playoffs in '97, unlike last year's Rays).

This isn't to suggest Tampa Bay is about to rip off three consecutive titles, not when Crawford and Pena are expected to leave as free agents, and not when the Rays' 2011 payroll might come in about $135 million lower than the Yanks'.

But Tampa Bay has speed, power and a starting rotation to die for, a combination that reduced the Yanks' four-run rally in the ninth to an irrelevant -- if entertaining -- event.

"It's the liberal-arts form of playing baseball," Maddon said. "You really want to be able to do all of those different things. ... When you get in a playoff situation, to be multifaceted makes it much more difficult for the other team."

Even if the other team is paying its players $206 million to win.

A real-world budget might prevent Tampa Bay from ever erecting a dynasty, but this team is strong enough to turn its four-game lead over the Yankees into an eight-game lead in a New York minute.

The Rays are hitting with runners in scoring position, something they didn't do in the past. Their starters are 22-6, with Matt Garza and David Price at the top and Wednesday night's winner, Wade Davis, assuming the role of not-so-weak link.

Meanwhile, Jorge Posada turned up with a broken bone in his foot, and one of the few Yanks who entered this series relatively healthy -- Marcus Thames -- couldn't help but sprain an ankle by stepping on his own bat.

The footloose and fancy-free Rays were the worst possible guests for the home team to see, even if they'd lost seven straight in the Bronx. As it turned out, the Yankees didn't need Yogi or Whitey to stage their own Old-Timers' Day.

"It's just one game," Maddon said. "But nevertheless, you've got to jump some hurdles at different points in order to grow as a team."

The Rays are growing into a juggernaut, and the Yankees are growing old. Brian Cashman knows the words of the prophet are written on the Stadium walls.

Unfortunately.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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