Signals crossed, Rays see deficit grow
Yankees take 1 1/2-game lead in AL East to open series
NEW YORK -- Several concerns continue to make the rounds inside the Rays' clubhouse these days, such as the relative health of the team's starting pitching and its lack of offense in the early innings.
Little was done to ease either of those concerns during Monday night's 8-6 loss to the Yankees at Yankee Stadium with 47,437 watching. By losing, the Rays (89-60) fell to 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Yankees (91-59) in their battle for supremacy in the American League East.
And, unfortunately for the Rays, a new concern entered the picture -- communication between the bench and the bullpen.
The Rays had just answered with four runs in the top of the sixth to tie the game at 4 when the Yankees got back to work in the bottom half of the inning with three consecutive singles off Rays starter Matt Garza, resulting in a run scoring and a 5-4 Yankees lead.
With left-handed-hitting outfielder Curtis Granderson due up next, Rays manager Joe Maddon went the mound to get Garza. Expecting to see left-hander Randy Choate coming in from the bullpen, Maddon was caught off guard when righty Grant Balfour arrived.
"I went out there and I was on the mound, and I was giving the ball to the pitcher, and it didn't look like Randy Choate," said Maddon, who noted he'd gone over some different scenarios with pitching coach Jim Hickey, but somewhere along the way there was a miscommunication leaving only Balfour warming up in the bullpen.
"That was a situation that was absolutely my fault because I'd talked to Hick about getting up Choate earlier," Maddon said. "But it was my fault. I really miscommunicated with him, so it's totally my fault in regards to that setup."
Balfour certainly wasn't going to say anything about the situation.
"I was the only one warming up, so I don't know who else was going in -- that's not my call," Balfour said. "That's not my job. My job's to go out to pitch, and I was the only one warming up. So what else are you going to do?"
The lack of communication proved critical, as Balfour fell behind, 2-1, to Granderson before the center fielder turned on Balfour's next pitch, a fastball up in the strike zone, sending a drive high off the right-field foul pole for his second home run of the game, extending the Yankees' lead back to four runs.
"I don't know how he hit it out, to be honest," Balfour said. "That ball was way up. He usually doesn't hit that pitch out. He's more of a low-ball hitter, I think."
The concern about the Rays' starting pitching seems to be more pressing.
On Sunday afternoon, starter Jeff Niemann took his fourth consecutive losing decision and his seventh loss of the season, raising questions about how much he can be counted on for the remainder of the season. On Monday night, Garza took his third consecutive loss; worse, he has lasted just 14 innings in those three starts while pitching to a 10.93 ERA. This comes after Garza went 4-0 with a 0.99 ERA in his previous four starts.
Garza said that nothing is going on physically with him other than the normal "nicks and bruises, but nothing dramatic." The right-hander actually felt he threw the ball pretty well on Monday night, but he did admit to being disappointed with the results.
"You want to come on the road, especially here, and start out good," Garza said. "It doesn't sting more than the others. We're still in a pretty good position to end up in October, so I think we'll just come back after it tomorrow. These guys know when they play us they have their hands full."
After two scoreless frames, the Yankees got busy in the third when Francisco Cervelli singled off Garza with one out. One out later, Granderson hit a 2-0 pitch over the wall in right field for his 20th home run of the season and a 2-0 Yankees lead.
The Yankees added two more in the fifth on Alex Rodriguez's sacrifice fly and another when Nick Swisher walked to force in a run.
Like always, the Rays seemed to have a tough time getting their offense on track in the early innings before they finally answered in the top of the sixth in the quirkiest of fashions. First, they scored when Carl Crawford swung and catcher's interference was called on Cervelli, the Yankees' catcher, to drive home a run. Evan Longoria grounded into a a double play with the bases loaded to drive in the Rays' second run before Dan Johnson singled home another. Finally, after again loading the bases, B.J. Upton drew a walk to tie the score at 4.
"Offensively, we have to take advantage early on in the game," Maddon said. "We're a good latter-part-of-the-game team, but we have to do a better job with our first at-bats. We are really good at the end of the game, and I'm not complaining about that. It's a great attribute."
Even after the Yankees took what appeared to be a commanding 8-4 lead, the Rays continued to fight back. Longoria's sacrifice fly in the seventh scored the Rays' fifth run and gave the third baseman 100 RBIs on the season, his second straight with that total.
Longoria added an RBI single in the ninth off Mariano Rivera to establish the final score.
The Rays know there will be other days, but the Yankees felt pretty good about Monday night's win.
"It's always good to go ahead and get a more meaningful win when it comes down to it," Granderson said. "Of course, every game at this point is meaningful."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.