On a beautiful afternoon in the the Bronx, Yankee Stadium played host to a collision between two AL East rivals. In one corner stood the Tampa Bay Rays and in the other, the New York Yankees sought to protect their home turf and avoid an eyesore of a homestand. Already destined to finish it with an under-.500 record, anything done to salvage the set would have been appreciated. Brett Gardner turned out to be the man for the job.
Primed to do battle against them was an unfamiliar face. Lefty Blake Snell of the Rays had the honor and distinction of making his first MLB start at Yankee Stadium, which certainly had to be a thrill for the Seattle native. With his parents in attendance, Snell pitched well. He threw 90 pitches over five innings, striking out six, issuing one walk, two hits and one earned run courtesy of a wild pitch that scored veteran Carlos Beltran in Snell's first inning of work.
Snell wound up getting a no decision, so per Katie Sharp, the 10-year streak of rookies failing to win their MLB debuts at Yankee Stadium will live on - long live Anibal Sanchez. It did appear that Snell would break it after an RBI double by Corey Dickerson and a Kevin Kiermaier homer off the right field foul pole put him in position for the victory. A grinder of an inning in the bottom of the seventh allowed for outfielder Brett Gardner to strike with an infield single that scored catcher Brian McCann to even up the score at two runs apiece.
After the deathly combo of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller shut the door in the eighth and ninth innings, the bottom of the ninth set up a dramatic scene. With two outs, Gardner socked a walk-off homer to right field to propel the Bombers into the win column for the second consecutive day. The triumph put the Yankees' record on the season at 7-9 and gave them their second series win on the year, their first since the opening salvo against the Houston Astros.
Although he did not net a victory, Masahiro Tanaka made life easy for manager Joe Girardi for a couple reasons. Firstly, he pitched effectively. Secondly, he ate up innings, something that Yankee starters have struggled to do for much of the first month of the season. Tanaka threw 97 pitches over seven innings and allowed just five hits and two earned runs. In striking out seven batters and walking just one, Tanaka pushed his strikeout total to 23 on the season, which now puts him on top among Yankee starting pitchers. Nathan Eovaldi had held the lead with 22, but Tanaka now holds the edge in that department after his impressive outing at home.
It should come as no surprise that he was able to succeed on Saturday afternoon, as Tanaka has typically done well at home. Going into this start, he checked in with a 2.97 ERA in 169.2 innings pitched at Yankee Stadium, allowing a opponents' batting average of just .213 with 165 strikeouts and just 29 walks.
For Gardner, his quiet but sizzling start to the season marches on. After his 3-for-5 day at the plate, Gardy raised his average up to .313 with a team-best on-base percentage of .414. After the struggling and worrisome end to the year in 2015, a fast start in 2016 was much needed. Evidently, that seems to be exactly what the veteran outfielder is bringing to the table, and it's something that Yankee fans should enjoy.
The quiet bats of the Rays remained rather mute sans the dinger from Kiermaier and double by Dickerson. No Rays batter has a batting average better than .279 and what's worse is that no one has an OBP better than .353. They were able to get a good outing from first-time starter Snell on Saturday afternoon, but as the Yankees have learned lately, if you can't produce runs, it's all for naught. That has been the story for this struggling Rays team who now stands at 7-10 on the year with just 57 runs scored, the third-worst mark in the AL.
Pursuing a sweep, the Yankees will now hand the ball off to Michael Pineda on Sunday afternoon while Drew Smyly will attempt to avoid it for the Rays.