New York Yankees Clinch Playoff Berth As Tampa Bay Rays Drop Heartbreaker

The Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees are playing a Wednesday doubleheader. Game one is in the books, with the Yankees having won 4-2.

One angle here is that the Yankees clinched their 16th playoff berth in 17 years. They came in with a magic number of two, with the win and the Rays' loss dropping that to zero. As such, the Yankees are officially guaranteed to participate in the postseason, as they have every year since 1995, excepting 2008.

But that isn't the big angle. That isn't the main angle. The more important angle here is that the Rays had the lead and then lost, dealing a significant blow to their chances of surpassing the Boston Red Sox for the Wild Card.

The Rays entered the day two games behind the Red Sox in the standings, but with a chance to make up some ground. They had a decided pitching advantage in the first game of their doubleheader, sending James Shields up against Hector Noesi. Noesi was making his first start of the year.

The Yankees struck early. With two outs in the first, Alex Rodriguez blasted an RBI double to dead center, scoring Derek Jeter.

But the Rays weren't behind long. It was a 1-0 game in the third when Desmond Jennings batted with one out and a runner 90 feet away. Noesi climbed the ladder with a 2-and-1 fastball, and Jennings went up and got it, launching a two-run homer out to left-center.

And the score remained 2-1 Rays for quite some time. The Yankees had a chance to even things up in the fifth when Austin Romine batted with one out and a runner on third, but Romine lined out to a diving Evan Longoria, who touched third base for the unfortunate double play.

Still ahead one, the Rays put two aboard with one out in the top of the eighth. Facing Luis Ayala, though, both Ben Zobrist and Reid Brignac struck out swinging, killing the chances for any insurance.

And that proved critical just minutes later. Leading off the bottom of the eighth, Eduardo Nunez ripped a low line drive to left off a Shields changeup that narrowly cleared the fence, tying the game. After a strikeout, a single and a walk, Shields was replaced by J.P. Howell, but Howell fell behind Robinson Cano 3-and-1 and then made a grave mistake:

Cano2b_medium

Cano2b2_medium

Cano destroyed Howell's hanging slider for a two-run double, and though the Yankees wouldn't score again, the damage was done - New York was on top 4-2, and they got to hand the ball to Mariano Rivera. Rivera recorded his usual results.

If you want a sense of the Rays' reaction:

Howellshields

The Rays had a chance to close the gap and keep the pressure on the Red Sox, but instead they blew a late lead and did themselves great harm. While their playoff chances aren't completely shot, now they badly need Jeremy Hellickson to outpitch CC Sabathia in Wednesday's nightcap. Which, well, I guess. Maybe.

As for the Yankees, congratulations to them. But we all know the regular season is just a formality.

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