NEW YORK — After the Rays exhaled following Thursday's tense-as-they come 3-1 win, they were able to appreciate the significance of what they'd done.
And, more importantly, for the future.
Really, it shouldn't be that hard. They make three trips a season to Yankee Stadium, and with all the evening out there is in baseball, how was it that over the last four years, 12 series in a row, not once did they walk out having won more than they'd lost?
"There's not a whole lot of celebrating we do when we come here,'' said Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who should know, as he's the only player left from the last time they did — on July 2, 2014, after a three-game sweep. "We play them really well at home (including 5-1 this year), but they have the upper hand here at their place. Who knows the reason why? It's weird how that happens.''
Weird enough that it was starting to become a thing.
Often the minutiae of records, stats and notable tidbits that reporters relish and broadcasters babble on about get ignored by the players.
But these Rays were aware of that past.
And, admirable for a squad of mostly young players battling really only to finish above .500, they seemed determined to change it.
"Oh yea, we knew,'' said first baseman Jake Bauers, one of the leaders of the young core. "Obviously, it means something. It means something, especially for this group of guys who have the hopes that we do for not only the rest of this year, but into next year. Hopefully it's just a sign of better days here.
"It's good to be the team to do it. That's a long time. And we take a lot of trips here. So to now win a series here in that long and to finally come here and play good baseball for three games and come out with two of three against one of the best teams in the league, it's a big thing.''
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After losing the series opener Tuesday and rolling to a relatively easy Wednesday win, the Rays (62-59) felt good about their chances with All-Star Blake Snell on the mound for the matinee in his third start since a DL stint.
They took a 2-0 lead in the first with four straight hits off Masahiro Tanaka, who'd spun a complete-game three-hitter against them the last time. Snell gave them a solid five, and the bullpen was good for a while. A series of baserunning mistakes kept them from adding on until the eighth, when they got a run on a Mallex Smith single and on-their-own bunts by Joey Wendle (and after an error sent Smith to third) and Bauers, an unselfish play that he was willing to try for one pitch, and it happened to be a good one to push down the first-base line.
They navigated some umpiring controversy in the eighth, when an incorrect call giving Giancarlo Stanton a homer that would have cut the lead to 3-2 was reversed on replay, with one run scoring.
And then they, with no better word, survived the ninth. After Sergio Romo let them down and loaded the bases, manager Kevin Cash gambled big time on Adam Kolarek, a 29-year-old rookie who works in middle relief when in the majors. And all he did was get three straight outs to close it out, and for his first career save at that.
"We talk about learning ways to win, finding ways to win here in this venue and the next one we're going to (Boston's Fenway Park),'' Cash said. "This was quite the challenge. They presented every bit of it. And our guys really withstood it.''
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Just playing in these environments, with 40,000 fans screaming and the games mattering, is going to be good for the rookie Rays, especially given the lack of atmosphere, intensity and energy when they're home at the Trop. There is no doubt there can be a benefit in their development.
But winning is markedly better, and even more beneficial. Especially like they did Thursday, given how many times over the years they let wins slip away.
Kiermaier was talking about weird things happening? In 27 of the Rays previous games at the Stadium the Rays led at some point. And they had won only 10.
So to not let it get away did mean something. Whether it carries over will be a narrative for next May when they come back. But at least they know this team can do it.
"There is some youthful energy that we talk about all the time and these guys, a lot of these guys, have won together (in the minors),'' Cash said. "This can be an intimidating, daunting place to play. I don't think these guys concern themselves with that too much. They're focused on executing what they're capable of doing.''
And now, for the first time since Kiermaier was a rookie playing right field, Ben Zobrist was in the lineup, Joel Peralta was coming out of the bullpen and Joe Maddon was managing, they know they're capable of winning a series at the big house on 161st Street in the Bronx.
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.