The Yankees-Rays rivalry has moved to October with an AL East showdown in the American League Division Series that starts Monday at Petco Park in San Diego. But do not expect their regular-season animosity to rear its ugly head in the best-of-five division series.
At least that is what both clubs are saying before the first pitch.
“I think our players have shown time-and-time again that they handle — whatever outside factors are present — they handle their business on the field really, really well, and our focus is going to go to win a series,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said on a video call Friday. “Find a way to win a series against a very good team that has gotten healthier here as of late.”
After sweeping the Cleveland Indians in the wild-card round, Yankees manager Aaron Boone labeled the Rays the “big, bad, No. 1 seed of the AL East” and made sure to downplay the hostility of their regular-season matchups.
“We want to win and advance and that’s where our focus is going to lie. We don’t want to get caught up in the back-and-forth,” Boone said. “There’s going to be things that come up that probably become a little bit contentious within the series, but I’m confident that our guys will do a good job of keeping their blinders on. We understand what’s at stake. I am confident that’s where our focus will be.”
Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier has always been candid about the bitterness between the AL East rivals. “I don’t think they’re the biggest fans of us, and vice versa,” Kiermaier said after their contentious regular-season series. “We don’t like them; they don’t like us.”
Nonetheless, the center fielder said the Rays will devote all their attention to the franchise’s first postseason bout with the Yankees, in which he insinuated they will be out to prove the “Evil Empire” is overpaid and overrated.
“We’re a small-market team with a low payroll, not a whole lot of household names, but with a lot of very good, above average, quality Major League Baseball players, man, one through 28. We know we can beat anyone,” Kiermaier said. “They’re a big-market team, everyone knows the Yankees, huge payroll. I feel like we’re always that team just waiting in the weeds. Don’t get a whole lot of recognition for the most part. But it’s OK with us because at the end of the day we win ballgames. We got 11 more and that’s what we plan on doing.”
The last regular-season Rays-Yankees series was in early September and included the game in which Aroldis Chapman‘s 101 mph fastball approached Mike Brosseau‘s head, leading to fines and suspensions. That is but a small sample of why the teams dislike each other.
The Rays and Yankees have generated quotes that are the stuff of marketing legend.
The “savages in the box” expression came out of a Boone expletive-packed outburst against umpire Brennan Miller’s strike zone during a game vs. Tampa Bay. Cash’s “I have a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98” was in response to Chapman’s pitch at Brosseau. Chapman received a three-game suspension, which will be served on appeal in 2021, and Boone and Cash were suspended one game each for their postgame comments that day.
Will that history fuel the series?
“We play baseball and we try to let our bats do the talking and our pitchers try to let their pitches, their arsenal, do the talking as well. Baseball is mostly chirping more than anything as far as altercations go. That’s the way it’s always been, the way it always will be,” Kiermaier said Friday. “What happened, happened, and I’m not gonna say we forgot about that because we haven’t. Just another chip on your shoulder, that much sweeter to try to beat those guys.
“But from here on moving forward, we’re going to try to play our best baseball, good, clean Rays’ baseball. I truly think whatever has happened up to this point might matter very little. I know everyone probably wants a lot of content in quotes about what happened earlier but, moving forward, we will do everything in our power to stay focused and maintain that in order to win.”