These ‘underdog’ Yankees should worry Rays even more

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The opponent in the American League Division Series had a better regular-season record than the Yankees. They conducted themselves with a swagger equal to that record. When the teams met during the main body of the season, the opponent reestablished which was the better team.

The record wasn’t an accident.

The Yankees were underdogs for a reason.

And none of that helped the 2017 Indians, winner of 102 games in the regular year, winner of the regular-season series by five games to two and the better team by any logical measure. Yet when that ALDS was over after five pulsating games, it was the Yankees who took a plane to Houston for the ALCS. It was the Yankees who embarked on the first chapter of this post-Core-Four renaissance.

It’s hard to shake the comparison between 2017 and 2020, between the ’17 Indians and the ’20 Rays. Neither of those teams were flukes. Both of those teams had stared down the Yankees plenty in the weeks and months before things counted for real. The Indians, in fact, lived up to their billing by actually seizing a 2-0 lead in the ALDS. They absolutely looked like the better team.

Until they weren’t.

Aaron Judge
Aaron Judge celebrates the Yankees beating the Indians.Corey Sipkin

“We had our chances to bury them and we never buried them,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said after Game 5, after the Yankees had beaten up Francona’s ace, Corey Kluber, and taken a clinching 5-2 victory. “You let a team like that hang around, you’re asking for trouble.”

These Rays went 40-20 across the shortened season, which plays out to 108-54 across the longer one, which is exactly the record the Red Sox compiled two years ago when folks were tripping over themselves finding a place for them among the all-time great teams to ever play the game.

Nobody is doing that for these Rays, but they know exactly how good they are. They know precisely how much they frustrated the Yankees this year. Forget the extracurriculars that will add color and pageantry to this series. The Rays bullied the Yankees on the baseball field this year in a way the Yankees aren’t often accustomed to being bullied. By anyone.

They finished seven full games ahead of the Yankees. They won eight out of 10 games. They have a 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation in Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow that can easily hang with the Yankees’ duo of Gerrit Cole and Masahiro Tanaka, and a deep bullpen full of live arms, and a relentless lineup.

There’s a reason why the Rays ought to be favored.

But are they? For one thing, Vegas lists the Yankees as the betting favorite for the series, which will be played entirely on the neutral grounds of San Diego’s Petco Park. And the most valuable part about studying those odds is that they are cold and bloodless measurements, unaffected by emotion.

But it’s more than that, too.

You get the sense the Yankees thoroughly enjoyed the challenges of the wild-card series just ended, when they swept the Indians in a best-of-three held entirely in Cleveland, when they managed to splatter the previously pristine reputation of Shane Bieber in Game 1, when they broke the Indians’ spirit and their town’s heart with a ninth-inning rally in Game 2.

The Yankees, after all, were the presumptive dominators of the AL East in spring, all during the sport’s sabbatical and for a good portion of the first half of the regular season. They are almost back to full strength, so much so that the people’s choice, Clint Frazier, was limited to one pinch-hitting appearance in that wild-card series.

Being dangerous and loose isn’t always for the best. The Yankees were dangerous and loose after splitting two ALDS games with the Red Sox in 2018, then got rolled over the rest of the series. But even that felt different than this. The Yankees winning that series really would have felt like a significant upset.

Will it really surprise you if the Yankees win this one?

The same way it almost certainly didn’t surprise you when they came back against the Indians in 2017, when old friend Greg Bird rescued them in Game 3 and the rest of the cavalry reported to work from there and they wound up within a game of the World Series? The Rays seem pretty proud of what they’ve done, and should be, and aren’t afraid to say so, and shouldn’t be.

The Yankees will show up anyway.

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