Rays lose ground as Garza falters
Righty out after five-plus; AL East lead trimmed to four games
ST. PETERSBURG -- Stepping into September felt like being barefoot on broken glass for the Rays, who took a 7-2 loss to the Yankees on Tuesday night in the opening game of a three-game series.
After posting a 21-7 record in August, the Rays dropped the first game of the season's final month to snap a five-game winning streak in front of a partisan Tampa Bay crowd of 21,629 at Tropicana Field. The loss allowed the second-place Red Sox to creep to within four games of the American League East-leading Rays after routing the Orioles, 14-2, at Fenway Park.
Matt Garza started for the Rays and openly battled his emotions for the first time since his volatile outing in Texas on June 8, when he squabbled with catcher Dioner Navarro.
"It wasn't a step back [in handling emotions] -- it just got out of hand," Garza said. "I lost control of it. I think the entire situation I was in was part of it, and I let outside stuff affect me tonight."
The 24-year-old right-hander got rattled in the fourth inning, when Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter singled and stole second base. One out later, Garza appeared to strike out Alex Rodriguez on a 2-2 pitch, but home-plate umpire Brian Runge called the pitch a ball. Rodriguez walked on the next pitch, which also appeared to be strike three. Jason Giambi's sacrifice fly -- which would have been the third out of the inning had Rodriguez struck out -- brought home Jeter. Xavier Nady then hit a two-run homer on a 1-0 Garza pitch to put the Yankees up, 3-1.
Garza seemed to get further agitated in the fifth, when Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano grounded one back to the mound and the right-hander threw wild to first, allowing Cano to move to second. Catcher Jose Molina sacrificed Cano to third before Johnny Damon tripled home Cano. Jeter's groundout scored Cano to give the Yankees a 5-1 lead.
At one point, Garza stepped off the mound and tried to gather himself by removing his cap and looking at the bottom of his cap's brim, where the names of his children are written.
"I knew I was hot, and I stepped out and tried to relax," Garza said. "[It was an] accumulation of a lot of things. I don't want to get too specific -- I'll leave it at that."
Rays manager Joe Maddon acknowledged that Garza had to battle his emotions, which the right-hander has successfully harnessed since the Texas incident. In essence, Garza has often described himself as a work in process while approaching the place he wants to be emotionally.
"When everything's going well, everybody normally looks pretty good," Maddon said. "You have to understand what you're all about when things aren't going that well, and those are the moments you have to get better at. And for the most part, he's made a lot of progress in those areas, too. Maybe tonight, he was frustrated a bit, but he will be fine his next time."
Shawn Riggans started at catcher for the Rays and said he did not try to curb Garza's emotions.
"You know, that's sort of like throwing gas on a fire," Riggans said. "You've got a guy -- he's kind of hot -- you've got to overcome that yourself. You don't really want someone coming up in your face and telling you to relax right away. Sometimes, it has a reverse effect. But I knew he was upset. It might have got him off his game a little bit, but you have to give it to them. They had some timely hits. They hit the ball good."
Mike Mussina started for the Yankees and tied a season high with eight strikeouts in six-plus innings to pick up his 17th win of the season and 19th career victory against the Rays.
Damaso Marte, Joba Chamberlain and Dan Giese closed out the win for the Bombers in a cumulative pitching effort that saw New York surrender 12 hits, but the Yankees managed to get big outs when needed, leaving 10 Rays on base.
The Rays' frustration was personified by a scoring opportunity in the second inning that fell by the wayside.
Eric Hinske hit a ball off the left-field wall with Willy Aybar on first, and Hinske scooted around second, sprinting toward third and making a headfirst slide into the bag. Unfortunately for the Rays, Aybar was standing on third and was tagged out for the first out of the inning.
"They took themselves out of an inning early -- Hinske just put his head down and kept running," Mussina said. "I was fortunate to get out of that inning with no runs scored."
B.J. Upton produced a defensive gem in the second, when he raced to the wall in center field to make an over-the-shoulder catcher of an Alex Rodriguez drive. Upton finished by crashing into the wall in a pose resembling Spider-Man before turning to show he still had the ball in the webbing of his glove.
"That was one of the better ones he's made," Maddon said. "That might have been his best catch."
Upton's catch provided the high point for the Rays on a night when little went right.
"Mussina -- give him credit -- he kept us off balance; he was throwing strikes and putting it in a good location," Riggans said. "Usually, we've been getting those timely hits, but today it didn't happen. Garza threw the ball well. It just didn't go our way tonight."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.