Rays Send Yankees to Another Off-Season of Vexing Questions

SAN DIEGO — The timing was coincidental, but fitting nonetheless.

As Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman was explaining to reporters on a video call how frustrating it was to cough up the decisive home run to Mike Brosseau in Game 5 of the American League division series on Friday, the Tampa Bay Rays were drinking and smoking cigars on the Petco Park field while playing Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” on a portable speaker.

The song is a tradition after games at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. And given how the fifth-seeded Yankees — with a payroll nearly four times bigger — had gone 4-11 against their division rival this year, including the three-games-to-two loss in this series, the top-seeded Rays had earned the right to troll.

With their season over, the Yankees will have plenty of time to dissect what went wrong during an up-and-down season and, specifically, in Friday’s 2-1 loss. But ultimately they will return to a question that has haunted them for four straight years: How can a team with so much talent continue to fall short of reaching the World Series?

“Every player is probably going to look themselves in the mirror and evaluate themselves and try to find something to work on to get better for next season,” said Yankees starter Gerrit Cole. “We didn’t reach the goal, so across the board we need to improve.”

Cole did his best to improve the Yankees this season, including when he took the mound on Friday. The Yankees committed a record $324 million to him over the winter, considering him to be the type of elite starting pitcher they had lacked in past postseasons.

After recording a 7-3 record and 2.84 earned run average during the 60-game regular season, he led them to two of their four playoff wins, and nearly a third. Starting on short rest for the first time in his career in Game 5 against the Rays, Cole struck out nine over five and one-third stout innings. He allowed just one run on a home run — his biggest weakness — to Rays outfielder Austin Meadows that tied the score at 1-1 in the fifth inning.

ImageGerrit Cole had a strong outing on Friday but was not pleased with himself after giving up a solo home run in the fifth inning.
Gerrit Cole had a strong outing on Friday but was not pleased with himself after giving up a solo home run in the fifth inning.Credit…Orlando Ramirez/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Boone called Cole’s performance “a championship, special-player effort,” but it was not enough on its own.

In all, the Yankees scored more runs than the Rays (24 to 21) in the series, hit better with runners in scoring position (.241 to .190) and had a lower E.R.A. (4.40 to 4.50) — but fell short in the wins category. One reason, said right fielder Aaron Judge, who was 3 for 27 this postseason entering Game 5 but accounted for his team’s lone run with a solo homer on Friday: The Yankees failed at “timely hitting.”

“I can look back through this whole series and the countless opportunities we had to really change the outcome of the series and weren’t able to capitalize,” he said. “I take full responsibility for that, especially being a leader on this team — certain situations where I need to step up.”

First baseman Luke Voit, who led the major leagues with 22 home runs during the regular season, also said he felt he had let his teammates down by going 2 for 18 against the Rays. “I hate this feeling,” he said after the loss.

During the regular season, the Yankees led the A.L. in scoring. They plowed through the Cleveland Indians, who had the best pitching staff in the A.L., in the first round of the postseason.

But when facing the A.L.’s next-best staff — the Rays and their “stable of guys that throw 98 miles per hour,” as their manager, Kevin Cash, once said — the Yankees’ offense wilted in key moments.

“We have the talent to” win a title, said the slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who carried the Yankees with six home runs this postseason but went 0 for 3 in Game 5. “It’s just a matter of getting it done. We haven’t gotten it done.”

On the mound in particular, the Yankees did not get it done, much like last year. While the Yankees’ top pitchers were stout in the series, the Rays were simply deeper. The group of Rays who pitched the bulk of first four games — Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Ryan Yarbrough — outperformed the Yankees’ contingent of J.A. Happ, Masahiro Tanaka, Jordan Montgomery and Cole. Tampa Bay’s extensive bullpen was formidable all series, too.

After the Game 5 loss, Boone acknowledged that the Yankees missed starting pitchers Luis Severino, who was out all year with Tommy John surgery; James Paxton, who sustained a forearm injury in September; and Domingo German, who was out all season because of a domestic abuse suspension. The Yankees also were without Tommy Kahnle, a stout reliever who had Tommy John surgery in August.

“That said, I think we’re that close — even with those — of competing for a championship,” Boone said after the loss. “That’s a great team over there. It’s razor thin. It’s just the nature of sport.”

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The Yankees’ dugout could only watch in the ninth inning as Tampa Bay put them away. Credit…Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Looking back at the series, Boone said he did not second-guess the Yankees’ opener tactic in a Game 2 loss. The strategy backfired when Boone replaced starter Deivi Garcia after one inning with J.A. Happ — who wasn’t fond of the strategy and struggled on the mound. Perhaps the Yankees would not have tried such a gambit if they had the same collection of reliable arms as the Rays.

“It came down basically to the last inning of the series,” Boone said. “I don’t think anyone is surprised by that necessarily, and we came up short. I dissect everything, usually, on a nightly basis and certainly will look back and reflect on things. I don’t have that many regrets.”

Chapman seemed to, though. Although he helped the Yankees force a Game 5 with stout pitching the previous day, Chapman said his 100 m.p.h. fastball to Brosseau, once an undrafted free agent who became a key role player for the Rays, caught a little too much of the plate in the eighth inning.

“He made good contact and he had a good at-bat,” Chapman said of Brosseau, who fouled off four offerings before his go-ahead blast to left field on the 10th pitch he saw.

Chapman insisted that he wasn’t thinking about his history with Brosseau on Friday. A month ago, he threw a 101-mile-per-hour pitch near Brosseau’s head during another flare-up in the ongoing rivalry between the Rays and Yankees, earning a three-game suspension that is under appeal. Chapman said he felt bad that he had once again given up the decisive blow in a season-ending playoff game; in the 2019 A.L.C.S., he surrendered the series-ending home run to Houston’s Jose Altuve in Game 6.

“I’m a closer,” he said. “I’m the one that finishes the game. And almost always when these things happen, it’s going to happen to me, because I’m the one that either wins or loses the game.”

For now, the Yankees face another off-season with some pressing questions. Will they re-sign D.J. LeMahieu, their star infielder who will be a free agent? Will they pick up the 2021 option for their longest-tenured player, Brett Gardner? Will Gary Sanchez, who was benched during the A.L.D.S., still be the Yankees’ primary catcher? How will they improve their pitching? Will Happ, Paxton and Tanaka — all free agents — be back? How much will the economic losses of the pandemic affect their off-season moves?

And perhaps most important: Can they end their 11-year title drought with this core of players before Judge becomes a free agent after the 2022 season?

“To come up short the last couple years, it’s tough,” Judge said. “These are just scars. They’re just going to continue to make this team stronger and make this team better. It’s just going to make that World Series title that much sweeter in the end.”

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