ST. PETERSBURG — Three days ago, the Yankees were the hottest team in the majors, surging back into the playoff picture while seemingly holding off any urge the front office might have to sell, sell, sell.
Following Saturday’s 6-3 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field, the Bombers were in a bit of a free fall, one that could reignite trade talks with less than 48 hours to go before Monday’s trade deadline.
“People are going to think what they’re going to think,” Joe Girardi said of the roster ramifications a weekend sweep could have. “I can’t worry about that. I’ve got to worry about what goes on in this room.”
Drew Smyly — a pitcher that hadn’t won a game since May 16 — fired six solid innings of two-run ball, holding the struggling Yankees offense to only four hits.
Nathan Eovaldi gave the Yankees a quality start with six innings of three-run ball, but once Curt Casali’s two-run home run gave the Rays a 3-2 lead in the third inning, the Yankees’ anemic offense showed little fight until it was too late.
“They’re frustrating losses,” Girardi said. “We’ve gotten behind early in games and we haven’t been able to catch up, but you got to go out and win tomorrow. That’s all you can do.”
After winning eight of 10 games to move a season-high four games above .500, the Yankees have lost three straight, scoring only five runs combined.
Alex Rodriguez’s return to the lineup was uneventful as he went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts — the Golden Sombrero — in his first start since July 22.
“It’s definitely been a frustrating season all the way around, that’s for sure,” A-Rod said. “Tonight’s a tough night, but it’s one game.”
Now it’s up to Michael Pineda to lead the Yankees to a win Sunday to avoid what could be a disastrous sweep.
Smyly hadn’t won a game in his previous 11 starts, going 0-7 with a 7.01 ERA. But Rays starters had made nine consecutive quality starts overall and had pitched to a 2.30 ERA in seven games against the Yankees this season, giving them hope Smyly — who had a 2.25 ERA in three starts against the Yankees since joining the Rays in 2014 — would continue that trend.
Eovaldi had posted a pair of solid starts since returning to the rotation after the All-Star break, going 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA as the development of a new cutter helped him against righthanded hitters.
Brad Miller crushed a 97 mph fastball over the center field wall in the first inning to give the Rays an early lead.
Smyly retired the first seven batters he faced, but Chase Headley’s third-inning single helped set up Brett Gardner’s two-out, two-run blast that gave the Yankees a lead.
But Casali answered with a two-run shot against Eovaldi in the bottom of the third, putting the Rays back on top.
“I gave up that first-inning homer, and then we come back and put two on the board — then I give up two right away,” Eovaldi said. “That inning was frustrating for me.”
“I didn’t think his location was very good tonight,” Girardi said. “I thought he did a good job of minimizing the damage.”
The Yankees threatened with two out in the fourth as Mark Teixeira singled and Starlin Castro doubled, but Smyly got Didi Gregorius to fly out to center, ending the rally.
Smyly pitched two more scoreless innings, allowing only four hits and one walk, striking out six in his six innings.
“He used his cutter well and kept us off the barrel,” Girardi said.
Anthony Swarzak gave up three runs in the seventh to put the game out of reach, the big blow coming on Tim Beckham’s two-run blast.
Headley’s solo homer in the eighth against Matt Andriese cut the lead to 6-3, then Gardner drew a two-out walk and Jacoby Ellsbury reached on yet another catcher’s interference, bringing Carlos Beltran to the plate as the tying run.
Andriese got Beltran to ground into a double play, thwarting the rally and taking away the Yankees’ best chance to get back into the game as All-Star closer Alex Colome finished with a scoreless ninth.
“We had an opportunity,” Girardi said. “We were three runs down but we had two guys on and we had the right guy up. Unfortunately he hit it hard into the ground.”
Sounds like the rest of the Yankees’ season.