Yankees-Rays series lacks feel of immediacy

NEW YORK – The emptiness of the vast stadium of an ATM machine spoke volumes early Thursday morning. Baseball was still being played. Important baseball. Pennant race baseball. And yet Yankee Stadium was all but empty in the ninth inning, its $80, $250 and $300 seats long abandoned by fans who have seen the most important series of the season for what it is:

Mark Teixeira battles through an 0-for-3 night.
(Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Holding time until the postseason.

There are few who will say the wild card has not brought new life to baseball, giving life to once-dormant Septembers for mediocre teams. But there is an occasional price to pay and it is the beauty of what this race for the American League East could have been.

Instead the Yankees and Rays, with two of the four best records in baseball, separated by 1½ games with less than two weeks to play, have been reduced to playing for who stays home and who flies to Minnesota for the first days of the playoffs.

In the third game of what should have been an essential four-game series, New York manager Joe Girardi used a pitcher who had never pitched for the Yankees before, Royce Ring(notes), and Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon used six pitchers to complete a 7-2 victory that felt like it was being played in mid-March rather than late September.

The culprit was rain, a slow summer storm that ambled across the New York area for two hours, forcing both managers to pull their starting pitchers after the deluge rather than risk injury.

“I think [the rain] killed it,” said Yankees designated hitter Lance Berkman(notes). “To me it was a totally different feel.”

But the series had been killed even before that. It was death by irrelevance.

Home field is still at stake yet baseball players never have seemed particularly motivated by home-field advantage. It’s never meant the same in baseball as it has in other sports. Earlier this week when asked if he prefers playing at Minnesota or home against Texas, Tampa Bay reliever Randy Choate(notes) shrugged.

Any intrigue at the end of this season for the Yankees and Rays is gone. Both teams are essentially in the playoffs. All anyone is trying to do now is not get hurt, line up their rotations for October and do everything they can to feel they have momentum for the postseason.

It’s strange what a difference a week makes.

Last week the race for the American League East felt alive. The Yankees and Rays tussled through three games that were epic. So important they seemed that Derek Jeter(notes) pretended to be hit with a pitch just to get to first in a game that dripped with a playoff frenzy. It seemed logical that the euphoria would carry this week to Yankee Stadium.

Thursday morning, as the Armitron clock high above the left field stands hit 12:25, the Yankees blasted “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah” at airport runway decibels just to work the 2,000 or so remaining in the stands on a water-slogged night into a big-game frenzy.

Their tiny roar seemed to get lost in the grandstand’s façade.

Derek Jeter jumps out of the way of the sliding Reid Brignac.
(Kathy Willens/AP Photo)

It’s as if both teams realized the fate of this season had been settled, their last challenger, the Boston Red Sox, were truly incapable of making a run. And what could have been a great series – the last between these two teams until a possible American League Championship Series – became a chance to look at long relievers and see if slumping players like Jeter and Berkman could come back to life before the playoffs begin.

Ironically in the montage of great Yankees moments with which the Yankees bombard their fans on the enormous center field video board, there was the image of Goose Gossage enticing Carl Yastrzemski to hit the final popup to third to end the 1978 division race – one that went to a one-game playoff. It is one of the finest Yankees memories of the past 35 years. And it wouldn’t have mattered today. In the current system both teams would have been in the postseason.

That is lost here.

Instead the Yankees and Rays have played their last series against each other this year as if none of this mattered. And maybe it doesn’t. Both are good road teams.

October is always a different season, home field never seeming to matter to the best teams, something everyone seemed to understand in the pennant race that had ceased to be a pennant race anymore.

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Sep 23, 2010