By Joe Pantorno
These are not the days of old when the 1998 Yankees flexed their muscles, grimaced toward the small-market San Diego Padres and blew by them for the first of three-straight World Series titles.
Gone are the days of the Yankees mystique and aura intimidating the smaller clubs they come in contact with during the postseason — especially their 2020 ALDS opponents, the Tampa Bay Rays.
Game 1 beginning on Monday night (8:07 p.m. first pitch, TBS), is the first opportunity for the Yankees to shed the notion that the Rays own them, having gone 2-8 against their hated AL East rivals during the truncated 2020 season.
For Tampa Bay center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, a strong showing in the ALDS only confirms that the small-market Rays are deserving to be mentioned with the American League’s elite after taking the AL East regular-season crown.
“We know we can play with anyone. We know we can beat anyone. They are a big market team, everyone knows the Yankees, huge payroll. We are here trying to play our game. We don’t get a whole lot of recognition but at the end of the day we win ballgames,” he said. “We know we are darn good at that. We don’t plan on changing anything as far as that. We plan on racking up the ‘Ws.’ We got 11 more and that is what we plan on doing.”
The Rays are the antithesis of everything the Yankees represent, not just on the economic landscape.
They play a brand of small-ball fueled by analytics that recently has a cast of no-names and never-was’ to legitimate contenders.
After winning 96 games last year, the Rays boasted the second-best record in baseball this season despite ranking 14th in home runs hit, 12th in runs scored, 21st in team batting average, and 13th in team OPS.
Their ability to manufacture runs without the long ball or overwhelming power like the Yankees is supplemented by one of the strongest, most well-rounded pitching staffs in baseball.
Tampa Bay’s combined ERA between starters and relievers is third-best in baseball, boasting a bevy of arms to keep the opposition befuddled at the dish.
They certainly had the Yankees confused during the regular season, as the Bronx Bombers came nowhere near living up to their famous nickname, slashing 218/.301/.383 while striking out on 27.8% of their at-bats against the Rays this season.
“We’re up against a really good opponent and we just have to play well,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Our focus here these next two days and on through the week is going to be on us and playing our best baseball.”