ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — As usual for a team hitting home runs at a record pace this season, it was the long ball that decided the Yankees’ game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday.
The problem for the Yankees, though, is that they did not hit any — not Wednesday, and not at all in this three-game series. And after a 3-2 loss at Tropicana Field, they were headed home having lost two of three in the series after being swept by the Rays the last time they faced them on the road.
“Get out of Tampa,” Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner said succinctly in a somber clubhouse moment after he struck out to end the game.
But it isn’t just in Tampa — or St. Petersburg, to be precise — where the Yankees have struggled to hit home runs. In their five games since the All-Star break, the Yankees have just one homer — their fewest in a five-game stretch since June 10-15, 2016. It also was the first time they did not homer in a series of at least three games since Sept. 2-4, 2016.
They failed to get one even against a cobbled-together lineup of pitchers that the Rays were forced to deploy after they traded away their scheduled starter earlier in the day. Tampa Bay’s offense got all of its runs courtesy of two sixth inning homers: a Kevin Kiermaier two-run blast off Yankees starter Luis Cessa, followed two outs later by a solo shot from C.J. Cron, off Jonathan Holder.
“It’s a tough loss — frustrating,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “There were a couple of losses in this series that could have gone either way.”
But the Yankees’ inability to get a big hit in crucial situations — either via long ball or otherwise — did them in. Both losses to the Rays came by one run.
That the Boston Red Sox have kept their foot on the accelerator with the best record in baseball accentuates every Yankee loss. The latest setback dropped the Yankees to 64-36, five and a half games behind Boston, who were scheduled to play the Baltimore Orioles later Wednesday. The Red Sox also acquired the pitcher who was set to start for the Rays on Wednesday — the power right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, a former Yankee — hours before the game.
“We can’t worry about what other teams are doing, especially when we’re not playing them,” Gardner said. “We haven’t played the way we can. I still feel that the best is yet to come.”
With Eovaldi headed to Boston, the Rays started reliever Ryne Stanek, who pitched a scoreless first inning, fanning two of the 10 Yankee batters who would eventually strike out.
The trade forced the Rays to scramble in other ways, too. They pitched reliever Sergio Romo in the eighth inning, then played him at third base for the first out in the ninth before reinserting him on the mound to get the game’s final two outs.
“Do I get credit for a hold and a save?” Romo said, only half-jokingly. “That was cool. I can now say that I played third base in a major league game.”
The moment briefly overtook Romo when he returned to the pitcher’s mound.
“I was feeling kind of giddy, feeling like a little kid when you’re super excited,” he said. “But then I threw a first-pitch ball and I was like, ‘O.K., let’s go. Lock in.’ I got back in the pitching mode quickly.”
The Yankees did get a key reinforcement before the game: the rookie second baseman Gleyber Torres, who had been rehabbing a right hip strain. He went 0 for 3 in his return, but he did walk and score one of the Yankees’ two runs.
The Yankees also got a solid start from Cessa, who is vying for a permanent spot in the Yankees’ rotation after replacing the struggling Domingo German — now in Class AAA after a poor start against the Mets last week. Cessa was cruising with a shutout through five innings before a flat changeup found the fat part of Kiermaier’s bat and the hitter deposited it into the right-field stands.
It wasn’t the first changeup Cessa had thrown to Keirmaier in the at-bat. “He threw me the same pitch and I swung right through it,” Keirmaier said. “That’s not the way to make a living, missing pitches you’re supposed to take advantage of. When he threw me the same pitch again, I got a hold of it.”
After Cessa was lifted one out later, Holder struck out the first batter he faced before surrendering a solo home run to Cron. The Yankees had pushed across a run home in the second and eighth innings, and had two base runners in the ninth, but couldn’t manage a big hit when they needed one.
“The Rays scored those few runs in the sixth, but that shouldn’t be enough to hold us down,” Gardner said. “We have to play better baseball. We didn’t have a great game collectively.”
Added Boone, “We have to move on quickly and go get home and kick off a nice home stand. I know our bats will start coming around. We’re close to breaking free — close to breaking out.”