By Zachary Finkelstein
Ever since exorcising the “Devil” from their moniker in November 2007, the Tampa Bay Rays have been Major League Baseball’s lovable little engine that could, a squad with a perpetually small payroll but enough David to compete with the Goliath clubs on a consistent basis.
After spending the first decade of their existence in the American League East cellar, the Rays entered 2008 with a new name, new uniforms and a new and improved outlook. That was the start of an epic franchise turnaround that saw baseball’s biggest doormat blossom into its newest Cinderella.
The glass slipper has yet to fall off for Tampa Bay, which has tallied the sport’s third-best winning percentage across the past five seasons.
The only superior AL squad during that time has been the Yankees, who hosted the Sunshine State’s shining baseball star during the first of a three-game set in the Bronx on Friday night.
The showdown had major postseason implications for both franchises. With an 81-62 record entering play, the Yankees were neck-and-neck with the Baltimore Orioles for the AL East’s top spot. The Rays, on the other hand, had lost two straight heartbreakers to the O’s in walk-off fashion and were sitting in their biggest playoff hole of the year, four games back of the second AL Wild Card berth.
The pitching matchup, at least on paper, was one over which to salivate. The visitors offered up left-hander David Price, the Majors’ ERA leader. The Yankees countered with their own southpaw stud in CC Sabathia, who was opposing Price for the third time this season and for the eighth occasion in his career.
In beating New York by a 6-4 score on Friday, the Rays managed to remain Sabathia’s bugaboo. Since joining the Bombers in 2009, the 6-foot-7 southpaw has topped Tampa Bay just thrice in 18 tries.
The Rays’ ace entered the evening with sturdy but unspectacular stats vs. the Bombers, against whom he improved to 7-3 with a 3.77 ERA in 17 career starts and one relief effort. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft had not pitched in 12 days due to a sore shoulder, but he came back with seven sensational frames of two-run ball. The victory was unquestionably crucial for a Tampa Bay team that is trying to make MLB’s postseason dance for the fourth time in five years.
"That was a big game for us, facing CC and that lineup," Price said. "We were up to the task."
The Rays remain in tenuous territory from a postseason prospects perspective, but they are by no means strangers to spectacular September comebacks. Just look at last year.
Through this point in 2011 –- with 144 games in the books –- the Rays were 80-64 and 4 1/2 games back in the AL Wild Card race. As history had it, they went 11-7 the rest of the way and clinched the Wild Card berth after aiding the Boston Red Sox’s baseball demons during the sport’s superlative September collapse.
The Yankees mounted an eighth-inning comeback attempt to pull Friday's game to within one, but the Rays called on closer Fernando Rodney -- this season’s Mr. Automatic and the owner of an eye-popping 0.66 ERA -- for a five-out save that sealed the deal.
Tampa Bay did most of its damage during a three-run fifth that saw Sabathia surrender three hits and two walks with a pair of wild pitches. Florida’s AL franchise also tacked on a key run in the eighth, when the red-hot B.J. Upton homered for the 13th time during a torrid 32-game stretch.
All told, Tampa Bay’s offense worked together for the victory. Leadoff man Desmond Jennings tallied two hits, a run and an RBI, and Ben Zobrist contributed a pair of hits, a walk and a run batted in of his own. Light-hitting catcher Chris Gimenez chipped in, as well, rapping two doubles and knotting the score when he plated his team’s first run in the fifth.
"It's no secret our offense -- we're not big boppers. We've got to scratch and claw for runs," Gimenez said. "Any time you can get three runs off CC Sabathia is huge."
The American League East appears to be a division that will go down to the wire. The Yankees dropped a half-game behind Baltimore with the defeat, but the day ended with both teams again on top after the O's fell to the A's in Oakland.
None of this matters to Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, who had no plans to monitor the out-of-town scoreboard upon his return to the team hotel.
“I am in the middle of Daniel Silva’s book ‘Fallen Angel,’” the Rays' cerebral skipper said.
“It’s very interesting.”