The days of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays frequenting the bottom of the American League East really do not seem to be that long ago. Yankees fans might have taken the D-Rays' ineptitude for granted during their decade of disastrous baseball from 1998-2007. The D-Rays escaped last place and won 70 games exactly once during this period, a fourth-place finish in the '04 season. In total, the D-Rays went 645-972, a .399 clip that averaged to about a 65-97 record. In contrast, the Yankees went 985-631 (a .610 winning percentage), and they won the AL East every season except '07, when they won the Wild Card. Thus, it's understandable that the Yankees did their share of beating up on the Devil Rays, and it should surprise no one that they went 111-55 against them from '98-'07, outscoring them 995-684. Obviously, the tables have been turned since the Tampa team dropped the "Devil" in its moniker and coincidentally began playing much better baseball. The Rays and Yankees have taken turns winning the AL East each year since '08, and the Yankees just barely have a winning record against them (44-40). Thus, thrashings like the one Pinstripe Alley is remembering today are uncommon.
Yankees fans have rarely seen a campaign as rocky as the '07 season end in a playoff berth. The Yankees endured stresses ranging from manager Joe Torre's job security to a rash of early injuries that resulted in the quick dismissal of their new strength and conditioning coach. They were not pitching well, outfielders Johnny Damon (who considered quitting baseball in Spring Training) and Bobby Abreu were out of shape, and the Yankees plummeted to a 21-29 record on the morning of May 30th, a mark better than just two AL teams and 8.5 games out of a playoff spot (14.5 behind the division-leading Boston Red Sox). The only players doing anything of worth were eventual AL MVP Alex Rodriguez, who was in the middle of a monster season and set an AL record with 14 homers in April (including multiple walk-off blasts), and longtime Yankee stalwarts Derek Jeter (.350/.425/.470) and Jorge Posada (.360/.414/.567). Oddly enough, the season began to turn around with the infamous A-Rod "Ha" game in Toronto, when A-Rod shouted "Ha" as he rounded third base on a two-out popup that caused confusion as John McDonald let the ball drop. The Yankees were leading anyway and those runs were just for insurance, but the Blue Jays were incensed after the game, even though teams try to trick their opponents all the time.
Regardless, the Yankees won the game, and they got hot--they had won 30 of their previous 47 games entering the game against Tampa Bay on July 22nd. In a doubleheader sweep the day before, the Yankees scored 24 combined runs against D-Rays pitching, highlighted by 17 in Game 2. The offense was still clicking on all cylinders when the Yankees took on young James Shields the next day. Andy Pettitte, who sported a 4.10 ERA in his first season back with New York since they let him go to Houston in '04, took the rubber for the Yankees.
The game started innocently enough. Both Pettitte and Shieldst threw a scoreless first inning for their respective clubs. Devil Rays first baseman Carlos Pena stepped to the plate to begin the top of the second inning against Pettitte. Pena, a former top prospect, actually spent most of the previous season in the Yankees' organization, playing first base for AAA Scranton, but after joining Tampa Bay in Spring Training '07, he won the starting job at first base and came out of nowhere to blast 46 homers. The mark still stands as a Tampa Bay franchise record. Sure enough, Pena smashed Pettitte's first pitch of the second high and deep down the right field line for his 23rd homer of the season. Pettitte worked his way out of the inning, and Yankees left fielder Hideki Matsui responded to Pena with a solo homer of his own, taking Shields's second pitch of the second out to deep right field. The score was tied 1-1.
The Yankees took the lead in the next inning in a rally started by leadoff hitter Melky Cabrera. The 22-year-old centerfielder had rebounded from a slow start to the season in his sophomore campaign, and he ended July with a .368/.410/.528 triple slash for the month. Cabrera lined a double to right-center field, then stole third base. Jeter walked, and up to the plate stepped Abreu, who was now back in shape. "El Comadulce" grounded a base-hit through the left side to bring Melky home and give the Yankees the lead. A-Rod followed up with a line drive single of his own to plate Jeter. The runners moved up to second and third on a misplay by second baseman Josh Wilson, but the Abreu was thrown out at home on a grounder to third and Tampa escaped further damage after Posada flew out to right field. The D-Rays tied it again in the top of the fourth on a two-run single by Wilson, atoning for his error by bringing home right fielder Delmon Young and DH Ty Wigginton. The Yankees did not enjoy being tied with a team that was 22 games under .500, and they dramatically changed the course of the game in the bottom half of the frame.
Second baseman Robinson Cano started the rally with a triple to right field and scored on a groundball single by first baseman Andy Phillips, giving the Yankees a 4-3 lead. The DH, slugging rookie Shelley Duncan, walked to put runners on first and second. Cabrera forced Duncan at second base, but Jeter followed with an opposite-field RBI single to score Phillips. Abreu grounded another RBI single to right field, and the Yankees executed a double steal with A-Rod at the plate. Devil Rays catcher Dioner Navarro, a former Yankee farmhand, threw the ball down the left-field line to bring Jeter home on an error. A-Rod walked and Matsui finally knocked Shields out of the game with a line drive single to center field, scoring Abreu and giving the Yankees a five-run lead. Reliever Casey Fossum came on for Shields and promptly gave up back-to-back singles to Posada and Cano, scoring both of the runners he inherited. All told, Shields gave up 10 runs on 10 hits in 3.1 innings, compiling an impressive Game Score of -3. A few batter later, Duncan put a cap on the inning by crushing a three-run homer down the left-field line for his second career homer, putting the Yankees into double digit scoring for the inning. By the time Jeter grounded out to end it, the score was 13-3 in favor of the Yankees. The half-inning lasted 40 minutes.
Pettitte shook off the rust to throw a scoreless fifth, and Abreu greeted new Tampa pitcher Shawn Camp with a solo homer to right-center field for his third RBI in three innings. Camp gave up a pair of singles to Matsui and Cano but escaped the inning without further damage. Miguel Cairo replaced Jeter at shortstop to begin the sixth as the Yankees sent Tampa the message that the game was already over. One might have thought that this would be a rallying cry for Joe Maddon's Devil Rays. It was not. Pettitte threw another scoreless inning in the sixth. Duncan led off the bottom of the sixth with his second homer of the game, a shot to deep right-center like Abreu's roundtripper. Cairo doubled and Damon came into the game to pinch-hit for Abreu. He lined a ground-rule double down the left-field line to score Cairo, then scored on a two-run homer to left-center field by A-Rod. The blast was A-Rod's 34th of the season, only one less than his total from all of '06. Two more hits later and Camp was gone from the game. Gary Glover ended the inning without more runs scoring, but it was now 18-3.
The Yankees brought in long reliever Sean Henn for the seventh now that the game was completely out of hand. He worked around a bit of wildness to pitch two scoreless innings. In the bottom of the eighth, the Yankees made the score look even more ridiculous against Scott Dohmann when Cano launched a two-run homer to right field, scoring Matsui and bringing himself home with the Yankees' 20th run of the game. It was the first time they had scored 20 in a game since June 21, 2005, when they put 20 up against... the Devil Rays. A pair of walks and a passed ball allowed Melky to officially give the Yankees a score one better than the previous 20-run game by blooping an RBI single to center-field to make the score 21-3. It was the team's 25th hit of the game, the second straight 20-hit game for them. The D-Rays scored a run on Mike Myers' shoddy pitching in the ninth, but it didn't make the final score look any less embarrassing: 21-4.
The Yankees scored 38 runs on 45 hits in two games. Torre remarked after the game, "I've never seen anything like these last two days. Even in batting practice you don't get hits every time you swing the bats. That was incredible." Good times...