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1998 Yankees Diary, July 10: New York blasts past sloppy Devil Rays

The Yankees weren’t at their best, but sometimes, you don’t need your best to beat an expansion team.

BBN-YANKEES-TAMPA BAY DEVIL4 Photo credit should read PETER MUHLY/AFP via Getty Images

We’ve seen with this year’s Rays and last year’s Yankees that teams can still be vulnerable after historic starts, what with the MLB season stretching so long. Despite their incredible early play in 2023, Tampa never was able to really separate itself from its AL East foes, and currently has the Orioles nipping at their heels, with the Yankees and Blue Jays not too far in the rear view either.

While the 1998 Yankees never had a club like the Orioles get back in contact with them like the O’s have with the Rays now, they too weren’t able to put the division out of reach in the first half; it’s just quite hard to do so in a 162-game campaign. Even as the Yankees racked up piles of wins, the eventual Wild Card-winning Red Sox also played great baseball, keeping the AL East division lead to single digits through late-June.

This stretch of games out of the All-Star break is what made it clear that the Yankees truly were never going to be caught. On this day, they smashed the Devil Rays to win their eight straight, scratching their lead to 13 games, the smallest the lead would be for the rest of the season.

July 10: Yankees 8, Devil Rays 4 (box score)

Record: 63-20, .759 (13 GA)

Things didn’t start out so smoothly for New York in this one, though. Hideki Irabu’s dominant start to 1998 continued to fade, as the expansion Tampa Bay lineup was able to bother him throughout the night.

Irabu’s troubles started in the second, when a walk, single, wild pitch, and walk loaded the bases. He escaped with minimal damage, inducing an run-scoring groundout from Miguel Cairo and then striking out Randy Winn to end the inning, but he found more issues in the third. Quinton McCracken led off with a single. Joe Girardi erased McCracken on a caught stealing, which was fortunate because the next batter, Fred McGriff, took Irabu deep for a 2-0 lead.

Things hit a nadir for the Yankees in the fourth. Making a fairly uncommon appearance in center field, Chad Curtis misplayed a leadoff line drive from Davey Martinez, allowing the ball to scoot the wall. The future Nationals skipper hustled around the bases for the first inside-the-park homer in Tropicana Field history:

Down 3-0 entering the fifth, the Yankees had done little to trouble Tampa starter Wilson Alvarez, who had yet to allow a hit. But as was often the case, these Yankees got it all back in a hurry. With one out, Alvarez hit Scott Brosius with a pitch, and Girardi followed with a single to end the no-hitter and put Alvarez in his first jam. Chuck Knoblauch nobly killed the rally, with a game-tying three-run homer:

And in the sixth, the Devil Rays remembered who they were. Curtis grounded a routine ball to the left side to lead off, but McGriff couldn’t handle a throw in the dirt over at first, allowing Curtis to reach. Tino Martinez followed with a single to put two on and none out. Tim Raines then grounded one to the normally sure-handed Wade Boggs, who inexplicably sailed the throw into center field:

That put the Yankees up 4-3, and a Jorge Posada sac fly pushed the lead to 5-3, all thanks to the Devil Rays’ largesse.

In a move that wouldn’t fly these days, Joe Torre sent out Irabu, who had struggled all game, was nearing 100 pitches, and was well through his third time through the Tampa Bay order, out for the sixth with the two-run advantage. Irabu quickly surrendered two singles before being removed in favor of Graeme Lloyd, who got out of the inning with the lead intact. In all, Irabu allowed 13 baserunners over 5.1 innings, yet only was charged with three runs. The D-Rays had runners on against him every inning, but were only able to build a picket fence in innings two through four, failing to put up the crooked number they needed.

To their credit, the Devil Rays did hang in there after falling behind in dispiriting fashion. Two singles to open the bottom of the seventh chased Lloyd, and recently-converted reliver Ramiro Mendoza came on. Mendoza did allow a run-scoring groundout, and Tampa was within 5-4.

With the Devil Rays hanging around, a dagger was in order. Ricky Ledee and Jorge Posada each singled, putting two on for Scott Brosius. The third baseman all but ended the competitive portion of this game with a three-run homer off Simpsons cult hero Esteban Yan, putting the Yankees out in front 8-4.

Mendoza acquitted himself quite well in the relief role on this night. Torre entrusted the eighth and ninth innings to Mendoza, and the righty had little trouble navigating the game to its conclusion. He closed things out without another run scoring, earning his first (and only) save of 1998.

This wasn’t the Yankees at their best in 1998, needing some help from the sloppy Devil Rays to prevail. But they used one of the most impactful tactics in the book (the three-run bomb) to come out on top, slugging when they needed to slug in order to keep their winning streak rolling.