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Rays 9 Yankees 2: Rays use innovative strategy in which 1 pitcher goes 9 innings

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

I love my Rays and don’t want to doubt them but let me confess: I started drafting this recap yesterday because I figured I could pre-write a paragraph about a dominant Gerritt Cole and it would fit somewhere. Once I read, earlier today, that Ji-Man Choi would be sitting out with a sore groin, I figured the Rays would be lucky to get a run.

But two very unexpected things happened today. First, Cole was human, very human, and the Rays were able to score a few off of him.

And then Ryan Yarbrough started the game....and never left.

The young ‘uns here may not remember that it is possible for a single pitcher to remain in the game for all nine innings. When this happens, friends, we call it a “complete game.” And Ryan Yarbrough has pitched the first Rays complete game since 2016.

Let’s review the scoring today and then come back to reflect on Yarbrough’s accomplishment.

The Yankees struck first: Brett Gardner hit a third inning solo home run. At the time I was not happy with Yarbrough because giving up the now weak hitting Gardner’s first 2021 home run should truly be a source of shame. But the lead was short-lived. In the top of the fourth inning, Brandon Lowe drew a walk, and Austin Meadows, channeling Ji-Man Choi for the day, continued his hot hitting with a home run to put the Rays up 2-1.

Yarbrough seemed to be ready to give the tenuous lead back in the bottom of the inning, starting off with a single to Aaron Judge and double to Gio Urshela to put men at second and third with no outs. But Yarbs buckled down to induce a pop-up and two strikeouts to end the threat.

Next inning Mike Zunino drew a walk followed by an infield hit by Kiermaier. In a bit of baseball karma, Kiermaier’s previous at-bat had ended with a grounder that was fielded by the pitcher, who then beat KK in a footrace to firstbase. This time it was a very similar play, although it was first baseman LeMahieu who was unable to tag Kiermaier en route to the base. With two on and two out, Lowe lined to right field, where Clint Frazier played it on a bounce (to my eye this was a catchable ball) and then threw either on purpose up the third base line, or inadvertently up the third base line; either way the throw didn’t go home, the catcher didn’t have time to snag it AND tag Zunino, who was running on contact. With Yandy Diaz then singling to score Kiermaier and Lowe, the Rays pulled to a 5-1 lead.

Here are words I did not expect to be writing: Cole was done after five innings. He did strike out seven, he did face a tight zone, he wasn’t helped by a few sloppy defensive plays but I think it’s safe to say that he wasn’t his sharpest. It happens!

Randy Arozarena has come down from his hot streak and has looked pretty bad, striking out pretty often. But he did manage to get on base with this, and we’ll take it:

After that reliever Nick Nelson just lost the strike zone, walking the next two batters and loading the bases. Austin Meadows — could he be any hotter? — hit a long, bases-clearing double and we were getting into blow-out territory with the Rays up 8-1. Meadows came home on a hit by Wendle for a nifty nine runs.

The Yankees did get one back on a solo shot by Michael Andujar in the seventh, but 9-2 is still a pretty good lead.

Then, we all watched with growing incredulity as Yarbrough came out to pitch the eighth inning. And... the ninth inning.

And then the game was over, the Rays had salvaged a split of the series and Yarbrough had himself a day. Final line: Nine innings, six hits, two earned runs, six strikeouts, eleven whiffs, 113 pitches.

Why did Cash let Yarbrough go the distance? Recall that two years ago, this same Yarbrough was pulled with one out to go in a game against Seattle, and the baseball pundit fallout was enormous. Well, in that situation the Rays had a mere one run lead and Cash opted to optimize the match-up rather than the milestone.

Today we had a very tired bullpen, a seven run lead, Yarbrough at just over 100 pitches, and keeping him in for the ninth was not just a fun accomplishment for the pitcher but also a way to win a game and make it more likely to win a subsequent game.

Some final thoughts: Yankees and their fans were unhappy with the strike zone — Cole got pretty much no lucky calls, while Yarbrough seemed to get a few acres of real estate at the edge of the zone:

A few thoughts on that:

  1. Yes, it’s unfortunate and that’s why I have advocated for an automatic strike zone.
  2. Since we don’t have an automated strike zone, pitchers, catchers and hitters all need to figure out how the home plate umpire is calling a game and adjust. Cole has just two pitches on that inside/outside border where Yarbrough is getting those calls. If that’s where the strike zone is today, it’s up to Cole and Higashioka to adjust to it. Likewise, Yankees hitters should need just an inning of at-bats before they realize they need to swing at those pitches.
  3. Many teams get the wrong side of bad umpiring, only the Yankees seem to have temper tantrums about them.

But enough about that third place team. Let’s tip our hats to Austin Meadows, who drove in five runs, and Ryan Yarbrough.

Let’s enjoy this win. All smiles!

When your work colleagues are with you every step of the way: