NEW YORK — Despite what a lot of Yankees claimed during their Division Series victory celebration on Monday night in Minneapolis, there’s no way they don’t have a preference whom they face next in the American League Championship Series.
They have to be rooting hard for the Tampa Bay Rays to finish off the mighty Astros after falling into an 0-2 hole in a best-of-five and then winning two straight at home to force a Game 5 on Thursday night in Houston.
If the Rays win, the Yankees get home-field advantage in the ALCS.
If the Rays prevail, the Yankees don’t have to return to Minute Maid Park, where they were 0-3 this season and 0-4 in the 2017 ALCS.
If the Rays advance, the Yanks don’t have to deal with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, who may be baseball’s best 1-2-3 rotation punch since the Braves had Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
If the Rays win, the Yanks also avoid a team full of stars that won a MLB-best 107 games this season and is two years removed from being World Series champions.
So, yes, the Yankees will be pulling for the Rays.
Most of them.
Maybe not Yankees designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion.
After the Rays’ 4-1 win over the Astros on Tuesday night, David Ortiz brought up Encarnacion while co-hosting FOX’s post-game show.
“Before this series began, my boy Edwin Encarnacion was praying for the A’s to beat Tampa (in the AL wild-card game) because they’ve got these wild kids coming out of the bullpen that are fearless and that’s what we saw tonight,” Ortiz said. “These kids … they don’t play around. You saw their pitching. They stopped that offense from the Houston Astros, and that’s something crazy to do.”
The Rays’ pitching staff includes a bunch of unheralded relievers … righties Diego Castillo, Emilio Pagan, Colin Poche and Nick Anderson, and lefties Brendan McKay and Ryan Yarbrough. As good as Rays starters Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow are, their no-name bullpen is just as dangerous, and manager Kevin Cash, the inventor of the opener in May 2018, is a master at piecing together wins.
By the way, it was the Rays and not the Astros who had the lowest team ERA this season by a percentage point – 3.65 to 3.66 – and so far in the playoffs Tampa Bay’s 2.65 ERA is second only to the Yankees’ 2.33.
After Ortiz told his Encarnacion story, fellow FOX post-game co-host Frank Thomas agreed that the Rays’ relievers are dangerous.
“They compete against New York and Boston repeatedly (as AL East rivals),” Thomas said. “Seriously, these guys are fearless and they’re not intimidated.”
Thomas predicted before the playoffs began that Houston’s lethal offense could have its hands full facing the Rays. In Game 3, the Rays used Castillo for 1 2/3 innings as their opener and closed out the Astros with 2018 AL Cy Young winner Snell getting the final two outs in his first career relief outing.
“Because of that pitching … they’re just different,” Thomas added. “They open up a game with a closer and they don’t care. They’ll fight you tooth and nails.”
Come Thursday, the Yankees will be interested bystanders watching to see who and where they play on Saturday when the ALCS begins.
“We know how good the Astros are, but we also know how good Tampa is,” Yankees catcher Austin Romine said. “They’ve got a great team also.”