Sharp words and dangerous pitches: The Yankees-Rays rivalry boils over

By James Wagner

The long-standing rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees is considered among the fiercest in sports history. But since Boston won the 2018 World Series, it’s been largely one-sided, with the Yankees going 21-5 against the Red Sox.

Fortunately, a new team has stepped in as the Yankees’ true rival: the Tampa Bay Rays.

If it wasn’t already apparent from the close contests, frequent jawing and aggressive hit-by-pitches exchanged over the previous three seasons, the two teams’ disdain for each other bubbled over in explosive fashion this week.

Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman threw a 101-mph fastball near Rays infielder Mike Brosseau’s head in the ninth inning in the Bronx on Tuesday. The benches cleared after the final out of the Yankees’ 5-3 win, which was only their second victory over the Rays in nine tries this season. And in his news conference after the game, Rays manager Kevin Cash issued an ominous threat of retaliation, saying he had a “stable full of guys who throw 98 miles an hour.”

Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier summed it up: “We don’t like them, they don’t like us.”

Before the Rays’ 5-2 win in the series finale Wednesday, Major League Baseball intervened. Chapman was suspended three games and fined an undisclosed amount for what the league said was intentional throwing at Brosseau’s head. Yankees manager Aaron Boone was suspended one game and fined for Chapman’s actions, while Cash was also suspended one game and fined for his comments after Tuesday’s game.

Chapman was available to pitch Wednesday, as he was appealing a suspension he said wasn’t appropriate, but Boone and Cash were slated to serve theirs Wednesday night.

“I know it was an ugly pitch,” Chapman said, “but it wasn’t my intention to make that kind of pitch, no less to try to hit him.”

While Cash said he felt his suspension was fair and warranted, Boone felt the opposite about his own. “I don’t think I should be sitting out tonight, nor Chappy,” he said, referring to Chapman. “But I also do respect the process.”

Chapman said the reason he missed so errantly against Brosseau with two outs in the ninth inning was because he had been struggling with his mechanics and because Tuesday was just his fourth appearance of the season. (He had a late start after testing positive for the coronavirus in July.) Before facing Brosseau, he had already missed high and inside to the two previous batters.

“Sometimes these things happen when you’re playing for a lot,” Boone said Wednesday of the bad blood between the teams. “I believe it can be behind us and should be behind us.”

Kiermaier offered a slightly different theory, suggesting the Yankees’ emotions had boiled over because “we’ve beaten them time and time again” this season. After Wednesday’s win in which Brosseau smashed two home runs, the Rays (26-12) held a 4 1/2-game lead over the Yankees (20-15) in the AL East. It was a reversal from last season, when the Yankees won 103 games and the division, while the Rays finished second with 96 victories and had to play the wild-card game as the road team.

Although umpires warned both benches after Chapman’s pitch Tuesday, the fireworks didn’t start in earnest until he struck out Brosseau to end the game. Players and coaches exchanged words as the teams headed off the field; Kiermaier said the Yankees’ third-base coach, Phil Nevin, had instigated it.

“Once again, it’s the same people over there chirping and trying to stir the pot,” Kiermaier said, adding later, “It’s a tired act.”

The Yankees and Rays converged and then dispersed within minutes without much physical confrontation — although Brosseau and Chapman were held away from each other by teammates.

Tensions had actually started simmering early in Tuesday’s game. Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka, who normally has better control than Chapman, hit Rays third baseman Joey Wendle in his side with a 95 mph fastball with two outs in the first inning. Wendle smiled as he jogged to first base.

The Rays believed that Wendle’s hit-by-pitch was retaliation for their strategy of pitching up and in to Yankees hitters, particularly infielder D.J. LeMahieu. The Yankees have complained repeatedly about that approach from the Rays, including last season. (Five Rays batters had been hit this season by the Yankees entering Wednesday, while three Yankees had been hit by Rays pitchers.)

During a heated series in early August, Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge said a past incident was still on the team’s mind when Rays pitchers challenged his teammates again with pitches high and tight. In 2018, Yankees catcher Austin Romine had to dodge a Rays pitch near his head, and CC Sabathia, the now-retired Yankees pitcher who was at the center of several brush-ups with the Rays over the years, reciprocated by hitting Rays catcher Jesús Sucre.

“If anybody wants to talk about the unwritten rules of baseball and sending a message, I believe that was done in the first inning with Joey,” Brosseau said of Wendle’s plunking Tuesday. “Usual protocol, when that happens, is that you get the message and you move on.”

But when Chapman threw too close to Brosseau’s head, the Rays felt the Yankees had taken things too far. Cash called the incident “absolutely ridiculous” and cast blame on the Yankees, Chapman and the umpires.

“I get it: They don’t like being thrown up and in,” he said. “But enough is enough. We’re talking about a 100-mile-an-hour fastball over a young man’s head.”

Cash said the Yankees had “poor judgment, poor coaching” and “poor teaching.” He later hinted that his team had thrown at Romine on purpose in 2018, then issued his threat about having several hard-throwing pitchers of his own.

After Tuesday’s game, Boone called Cash’s comments “pretty scary,” and he continued a day later, calling them “reckless and inflammatory.” But as far as Cash’s claims that the Yankees’ coaching was lacking, Boone said he wasn’t offended by his counterpart’s comments in the heat of the moment.

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