The Yankees-Rays game today was supposed to feature a marquee pitching matchup. With stellar veteran Hiroki Kuroda, the American League ERA leader, facing off against promising rookie Chris Archer, runs were predicted to be at a premium. Archer was no slouch on the mound either-- the last time Archer faced the Yankees, he dominated. He tossed a complete-game shutout at Yankee Stadium, needing less than 100 pitches to do so. His mix of 98-mph heat and 85-mph breaking balls were too much for the Yankees to handle.
So how did this game go? It started off pretty normally, with Brett Gardner working a walk and stealing second. Curtis Granderson moved him to third with a fly ball to center and after a Robinson Cano strikeout, Alfonso Soriano knocked Gardner in with a base hit through the right side. Joe Maddon had three guys on the left side of the infield, so what did Alfonso do? He grounded one the other way, and with only one defender, there was not much James Loney could do.
Kuroda, shaky in his last outing against the Red Sox, showed early signs that he was going to be shaky again today. In the second inning, he gave up two hard-hit singles and then a three-run home run to light-hitting backstop Jose Lobaton. It was only his seventh home run of the year, but it put Tampa Bay up 3-1. Two runs isn't that big of a deficit, especially with the new and improved Yankees offense, so nobody was panicking.
Then came the top of the third. With Gardner on first and one out, Granderson slammed a line drive to right field. Unfortunately, it happened to be right at Rays right fielder Matt Joyce. He ran in a couple steps and snagged the ball a foot off the ground. What was even worse was that this was a hit-and-run play, and Gardner was easily doubled off first. If that line drive had been 10 feet to the right, Gardner would have probably scored and Granderson would have been on second base, with only one out.
Kuroda, normally a steady and consistent pitcher, began to unravel in the bottom of the third. He surrendered back-to-back dingers with two outs, but I will give him some slack for this one as the home runs were hit by Evan Longoria and Matt Joyce. However, the pitch to Joyce was literally right down the middle. These home runs made it 5-1 Rays, but it could have been 5-2 or maybe even 5-3 because of what could have happened in the top of the third.
The top of the fourth started with an immediate burst of anger. Cano roped one into right field, but again it was pretty much right at Joyce and he put it away after the first out. After Soriano hit a ground ball which would have probably been a hit had the Rays not employed the same shift they employed during his first at-bat, Alex Rodriguez came to the plate. By now it's pretty obvious what he did: hammered an Archer offering to right field directly at Joyce. He must have had a magnet in his glove somewhere.
In the bottom of the fourth, Kuroda continued to struggle as he gave up a double to David DeJesus and an RBI single to Lobaton, making it a 6-1 ballgame. However, the Yankees did get some payback as Desmond Jennings lined into a double play to end the inning. However, the Rays' lead was quickly growing and their offense showed no signs of stopping.
The top of the fifth inning was smooth sailing for Archer, who recorded two strikeouts in the inning and gave up a swinging-bunt infield single to Eduardo Nunez, one of two Yankees to record more than one hit on the night. More from him later.
Just when I thought Kuroda couldn't get much worse, he got worst. Ben Zobrist led off the bottom of the fifth with his tenth big fly of the year, and the Rays' lead was suddenly extended to six runs. Mind you, I'm not being pessimistic about the Yankees' offense, but down by six runs in the sixth inning with Chris Archer pitching is not a very good thing.
Thanks to Gardner (and pretty much only Gardner), the Yankees would get their second run of the night in the top of the sixth. Gardner hit a fly ball deep to left-center field, and Jennings couldn't get to it. It would have been a great catch if he did get to it, but he didn't and it one-hopped the wall as Gardner motored around the bases and ended up with a triple. With one man out, Cano grounded one to second. Zobrist made a nice diving stop on the ball and threw Cano out, but Gardner scored to make the score 7-2 in favor of Tampa Bay.
Kuroda settled down in the bottom of the sixth to record his first scoreless inning since the first, and his second 1-2-3 inning of the night. That would be it for him, however. His final line looks more like a CC Sabathia start: six innings, seven earned runs, nine hits, and only three strikeouts. His ERA rose thirty points, from 2.41 to 2.71, and all of his breaking balls were flat tonight. It was a very tough night for Hiroki, and he has hit two speed bumps recently in his quest for the American League ERA title. In his past two starts combined, he has given up twelve runs (ten earned) in just 11 2/3 innings. That equates to an ERA of 7.71.
The Yankees had their best chance to come back in the seventh, but they would be hurt by Lady Luck yet again. With two outs already recorded in the inning and Archer seemingly on his way to a seven-inning win, Mark Reynolds staged a terrific at-bat, fighting back from 0-2 to work a walk. Nunez was up next and spoiled an 0-2 slider, lining it into left field to put runners on first and second. With first and second and still two outs, Chris Stewart stepped to the plate. Archer threw a get-me-over fastball right down the middle, and Stewart jumped on it. He crushed it deep to left field, and it was a bullet. Incredibly, DeJesus (playing his first game as a member of the Rays) took a few steps back, caught the scorching liner, and crashed into the wall pretty violently. If that line drive had been a few feet deeper (or higher), Stewart would have had a three-run home run and the score would have been 7-5.
But it was not to be. The Yankees went down easily in the eighth and ninth innings (and Joe Maddon actually brought out Roberto Hernandez to finish them off), and here we have it. One of the more annoying losses of the season, and surely one of the unluckiest. With four lineouts and two in crucial situations (plus, an argument could be made that had Cano led off with a double in the fourth instead of a lineout and Rodriguez gotten a line-drive single with one out, the Yankees would have scored at least one, if not two or three runs in the fourth), today was a crusher. A backbreaker. One the Yankees could probably afford to lose, but still a terrible loss.
Think about what could have happened if even half of those line drives had been hits. Let's say Stewart's is a home run (because his was definitely closest to not being caught) and Granderson's is a double (as his could have dropped easily as well). If Granderson doubles a speedy Gardner home and makes it a 3-2 game in the third, who knows where the momentum would have gone after that. The Yankees could have gotten all fired up in the fourth (and they actually were, with two lineouts).
If Stewart's is a three-run home run, that's a big blow to the Rays. A two-out rally involving a Mark Reynolds walk (!), an Eduardo Nunez single, and a Stewart home run is an extremely rare occurrence and for that to happen against a pitcher as good as Archer is amazing. However, this probably changes the game less than if Granderson's was a hit due to it being in the seventh inning. Still, you never know. And we'll never know.
If Cano's and A-Rod's are hits in the fourth, the momentum shifts to the Yankees and you can't assume that the Rays still win after that. That would make it 5-2 (5-3 or 5-4 if Granderson's is a hit) and more runs could still be scored that inning. Momentum is key in a baseball game, and despite their best efforts, the Yankees never got it tonight.