Yankees should know by now that Rays aren’t going away

These Rays, these Rays, these Rays.

They’re the gum you can’t get off your shoe, the hiccup you can’t stop, the annoying high school classmate who tracks you down no matter how many times you change your number.

They’re the Yankees’ regular serving of humility, unprescribed and undesired.

There won’t be yearlong perfection at Yankee Stadium by its chief occupant, and it sure looks like there won’t be a cakewalk to the American League East crown. Not with the Rays around to wreak havoc. Their first 2020 visit to The Bronx produced a 6-3 victory over the Yankees on Tuesday night, ending their rivals’ six-game winning streak as well as a 10-0 start to the season at home. At 15-9, the Rays trail the Yankees (16-7) by a game and a half, two in the loss column, and they reside within creeping distance thanks primarily to their 4-1 record in head-to-head action.

“Beating the Yankees definitely feels good,” winning pitcher Blake Snell said. “Even without their stars in there, they’ve still got a great amount of talented guys. Beating the Yankees always feels great.”

Tampa Bay second baseman Brandon Lowe (center) celebrates with teammates after belting a three-run homer in the Yankees’ 6-3 loss to the Rays on Tuesday night.Robert Sabo

Beating the Yankees, on the Rays’ part, provided fitting bookends to the Yankees’ recent dominance of the Braves (two straight wins) and Red Sox (four straight). Prior to Tuesday, the Yankees’ most recent defeat came on Aug. 9 — the last time they played the Rays.

This series opener provided one of the two defining characteristics from the Tropicana Field matchup earlier this month: Very strong pitching by the Rays, as former American League Cy Young Award winner Snell battled for five innings, allowing three runs, before a quartet of relievers clocked a shutout inning apiece.

Snell alluded to the Yankees not being at full strength; Giancarlo Stanton went down at the Trop, and Aaron Judge and DJ LeMahieu followed. Yet those major losses didn’t halt the Yankees from posting major wins … until they crossed paths with the Rays again.

That Masahiro Tanaka earned the loss, giving up six runs (five earned) in four-plus innings, added more shine to the Rays’ grins. Tanaka had posted a 1.64 ERA over 60 ¹/₃ innings in his prior nine starts against these guys.

“Masahiro is a guy that’s been really tough for us, and we adjusted a little bit,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “We were ready for some off-speed pitches. Being ready for those off-speed pitches, handling them a little bit, maybe allowed Brandon to get a fastball that he maybe normally wouldn’t have gotten.”

That would be lefty-swinging Brandon Lowe, the reigning AL Player of the Week who crushed a Tanaka heater the other way for a three-run, third-inning homer that capped a four-run burst. Solo runs followed in the fourth and fifth, and the visitors made the empty Stadium seem even quieter.

“Playing with no fans, it definitely takes it away from them,” Snell said of the Yankees. “That’s definitely an advantage they have [normally], being able to play at home.” Although, to be fair, Snell missed the noise as well, compensating for the normal pregame hate by telling himself, as he warmed up in the bullpen, that he sucked.

“It was weird. It was quiet,” added Austin Meadows, who knocked out Tanaka with a fifth-inning solo homer. “I think it’s the weirdest [pandemic] atmosphere in general because it’s Yankee Stadium. It’s a sold-out crowd almost every game, and it’s empty.”

It was weird for these Yankees to lose at home. But then again, they hadn’t faced the Rays here yet.

“It’s a big win, for sure,” said Cash, whose team has now won 11 of 14. “We’re still behind them. They’ve got a ton of depth. We’re fortunate that we started off [the series] with a win. We’ll look to come back and put pressure on them tomorrow.”

The pressure doesn’t relent. Knowing that won’t make eradicating these perpetual low-payroll pests any easier for the Yankees.