The young man Aroldis Chapman nearly beheaded a month ago in what appeared to be punishment for other pitches thrown by other men — maybe over a period of years — is named Mike Brosseau. Spelled just that way. In that order. Some folks nationally are having trouble identifying Tampa Bay Rays properly, putting names with faces and all, so that ace Blake Snell becomes Ian, so that reliever Pete Fairbanks becomes Patrick, so that Brandon Lowe’s name is mispronounced more than a year after he was an All-Star, which can happen if you are not, for one, a New York Yankee.
Anyway, Mike Brosseau.
So, on the morning after the Rays felled the Toronto Blue Jays in the wild-card round, then watched as their division series opponent became the Yankees, Brosseau was on a call with Rays beat writers. He was of course asked about this thing the Rays seem to have with the Yankees, unless it’s this thing the Yankees seem to have with the Rays, for either way it sometimes ends with people yelling at each other at close range.
An affable sort whose nice smile still exists in part because superior reflexes once allowed him to slip Chapman’s best heat-seeker, Brosseau put it like this: “I mean, the way that we pitch is the way that we pitch. If [pitching coach Kyle Snyder] and [manager Kevin] Cash think that we’re going to attack hard in and that’s the best way to get their hitters out, then that’s what we’re going to do. As far as having anything carry over from past experiences, at least from our end, I think we’ve put it in the past and our focus is getting past this round and moving on.”
The best-of-five ALDS opens Monday in San Diego. The Rays won the AL East going away. They beat the Yankees eight times in 10 games. The Yankees had to compose themselves with about three weeks left in the season just to be sure they would see October, and they’ve since had Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton return from injuries. Among the Yankees’ issues leading into those final days was a lot of games against the Rays, and it was on one of those nights in early September when old grudges returned.
“Well, we won’t be dragged into it,” Yankees hitting coach Marcus Thames said Thursday morning. “It happened. That’s in the past for us. We just gotta stay focused on what we need to do and don’t let that little stuff get to you. They’re gonna do what they have to do to try to make us uncomfortable. I think we have to do the same thing as hitters. If [pitching inside] is their game plan, good luck to ’em. I don’t think they can pitch in for strikes. So, for me, it is what it is and if we stick to our plan, our approach, we’ll be fine.”
Two franchises separated by 1,200 miles and 27 championships and everything those would suggest have gone a good three years fighting over inside pitches. A Yankees reliever named Tommy Layne hit Corey Dickerson during a game in May 2017, and then Matt Andriese hit rookie Aaron Judge in the same game, and then the seasons changed and the names with them, but the same skirmishes over the same areas — the places that may or may not be strikes or balls, that may or may not be intentional, that may or may not be a knee, a wrist, an elbow, a jaw.
The places where almost all of the game of baseball exists are right there, in the hazy area between production and pain, a few inches either way, all drawn and gauged in an eyeblink.
CC Sabathia used the occasion of his final pitch of the 2018 season to hit one of them with a fastball and call another one of them a b----, spreadin’ it around like that. Now he’s gone and so are some of them. A couple years later, Diego Castillo spins DJ LeMahieu with a fastball, Masahiro Tanaka hits a couple batters, the Rays doggedly continue their intentions to lock up the big Yankees hitters, and suddenly Mike Brosseau is turtling away from 101 mph of retribution.
From that flurry of hard feelings, welts and suspensions came the words that captured what an unlikely rivalry had become, from Cash: “Somebody has to be accountable and the last thing I’ll say is I have a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph.”
The threat was printed on T-shirts. On caps. In Tampa, there’s probably a snow globe, a onesie and a refrigerator magnet. The manager of the Rays would not be cowed by championships or payrolls or players whose names people recognized and could pronounce. Whatever lingers, and in baseball everything lingers, will have its moment in the Mason jar that is the pandemic bubble, and as many as five games in as many as five days, and in the hotel the teams will share, and ultimately at Petco Park.
“Shirts and hats doesn’t mean anything,” Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton said. “We’re going to be there, in San Diego, and play it out there.”
Four days before they’d meet again, the Yankees and Rays seemed to agree there’d be no reason for escalation. They’d also not duck it, of course, and everybody loves each other until the first knuckle-grazing fastball, and by the way Chapman’s three-game suspension for throwing at Brosseau remains in abeyance.
So the Yankees will arrive with all the reputation, and the Rays will arrive with all the recent wins and a good amount of the anonymity, which is how this has always played.
“Yeah, I think that’s just the way it’s gonna be,” Brousseau said. “Anytime it’s Yankees against Tampa, doesn’t matter what the record is. Most likely we’re going to be considered the underdog. And yeah I think that kind of fuels our fire a little bit. I think we’ve got a team full of people that may have been considered underdogs throughout their entire career and compiled into one big team here. So, yeah, it’s a driving factor for sure. We like playing that way. We like playing with that chip on our shoulder and kind of that mentality of proving people wrong.”
Yankees manager Aaron Boone grinned and said, “We’re clearly the underdog now. [They’re the] big bad No. 1 seed of the AL East.”
“No,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll be very difficult for our guys to really focus on. We want to win. We want to win and advance. That’s where our focus is going to lie. We don’t want to get caught up in the back and forth. There’s going to be things that come up that probably become a little bit contentious within a series, but I’m confident our guys will do a good job of keeping their blinders on. We understand what’s at stake.”
It starts with two good teams, Brosseau said. They get competitive. They spend a little too much time near each other in a short season. They sort out that area that may or may not be a strike, that may or may not leave a bruise.
“The usual thing,” he said. “It kind of unfolds from there on out.”
Then comes October.
“I would expect those same tensions,” he said, smiling, “if not even more.”
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