ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Cancel October. The Fall Classic may have showed up early this year. In the first of seven September matchups, the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays played their aces Monday night, and with all due respect to the other playoff contenders, no other teams have a hand like this.
The Rays ripped first place from the Bombers in the bottom of the 11th inning with a solo home run by Reid Brignac(notes), but the story of the 1-0 game was the way two star pitchers – and two teams – showed exactly how closely matched they are. So if you’re waiting for a chill in the air for the chills that the two best teams in baseball bring, you might be waiting way too long.
For those who spent the evening watching New York City’s other rotund icon – Rex Ryan – CC Sabathia(notes) did not allow a runner past second in his bid for a 20-win season. But David Price(notes) didn’t either, and the two Cy Young candidates left with bagels on the board after eight thrilling innings.
It was almost like watching one Cy Young winner pitch against himself, the way the lefties each fooled some hitters and overpowered others. The rare baserunner was invariably picked off, caught stealing, or doubled up. The rare line drive ran out of gas quickly, dying in an outstretched glove. The bases seemed 90 miles apart rather than 90 feet. The starters’ combined line: 16 innings, no runs, five hits, four walks, 13 strikeouts and 150 strikes.
Sure, Jon Lester(notes) and Felix Hernandez(notes) and Cliff Lee(notes) could have done it, too, but this game left the feeling that these are the two pitchers who belong together on the postseason stage. Sabathia and Price are friendly – Price even used one of Sabathia’s fielding gloves in a start last season – but consider the rivalry stoked. The two have met before, last October, when Price denied Sabathia his 20th win. Monday night, Price did it again. But it didn’t feel like a statement game. It felt like a prelude to something much bigger.
“He outpitched me,” said Price, smiling slightly, knowingly. “He gave up two hits, I gave up three.”
Who’s counting? Well, Price is, clearly, and although he said he’d vote the Cy Young to Sabathia, he clearly wants a Rocky II-style rematch of this scoreless draw. “I take that attitude against every pitcher,” he says. “I don’t want them to win.”
Sabathia insists he doesn’t consider Price a rival, and he says, “I pitch against lineups,” not other pitchers. But like every seven-game series, this is going to turn edgy no matter how nice and cordial the players are. Price and Sabathia are the stoppers for the best two teams in baseball, and one will be stopped. More than likely, it will be one of them who eventually stops the other.
Monday night belonged to the left-handed starters, but the growing war between the two teams has time to boil. Carl Crawford(notes) was ejected in the bottom of the ninth for arguing a third strike at home plate, and he admitted afterward he probably would have walked away if he weren’t playing against New York. “In a game like this,” he said, “emotions get so high and you want to win so badly. I find myself trying to calm myself down [against the Yankees]. We don’t normally get this many fans here, so you feel it as soon as you walk into the stadium. I couldn’t control my emotions.”
Even after Crawford’s departure – even after Price and Sabathia were gone – the game remained scoreless into the 11th. The bullpens stood up. Yankees manager Joe Girardi kept Joba Chamberlain(notes) and David Robertson(notes) seated, giving them one more day of rest. It was Sergio Mitre(notes) who made the single pitch that ended the scoreless duel. Would Chamberlain or Robertson have made that pitch? Just as in a playoff series, little things seemed big.
The Yankees were the Yankees after the game: staid and steady, sure they will “bounce back.” Of course they will. But there was a sting in this loss. The Yankees threw their best pitcher – arguably their only reliable pitcher – and lost their hold on home-field advantage in a hypothetical ALCS rematch. They must know an extra home game matters against a team like the Rays, who have been the better team away from home all season and likely would get a boost from a partisan playoff crowd. Asked how tough this 1-0 loss was, Girardi said, “What do you think?”
Both teams almost surely will make the postseason, so it really is only one regular-season game. But the Yankees suddenly seem behind – not only in the standings, but in the sense that a team seems behind after the first game of a playoff series. Nobody will consider Game 2 a must-win, but momentum will gather behind the Rays with a series win. “This is the kind of game you’re going to play in the postseason,” Price said. The Yankees are still the champs. The Rays are right there with them. “Six more games against them,” said Monday’s hero, Brignac, “and they’re all going to be like this.”