MLB.com Columnist

Hal Bodley

Rays give 'Baby Bombers' rude awakening

Rays give 'Baby Bombers' rude awakening

ST. PETERSBURG -- This is not the way it was supposed to begin for the New York Yankees.

Propelled by a young core nicknamed the "Baby Bombers," the Yankees tore through the Grapefruit League, won 24 of 33 exhibition games and oozed with optimism as they opened their 2017 season Sunday against Tampa Bay.

Nobody would have blamed Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, et al -- the new wave of Yanks talent -- if they flexed their muscles a tad when they arrived at Tropicana Field on Sunday.

The Rays won, 7-3. The game wasn't as close as the score.

Tampa Bay, an unknown quantity at best, is not expected to challenge the big guns of the American League East this year.

But if you're the proud Yankees, who've been to the postseason just once in the past four seasons and haven't won the World Series since 2009, you were looking for a much more positive start Sunday to your 115th season.

Colome closes the door

Tampa Bay won just 68 games last season and finished in last place. It's uncertain how much better the Rays will be this year. They were 12-16 in spring games.

Skipper Joe Girardi, beginning his 10th season at the helm of the Yanks, was obviously not pleased with his team's performance after it recorded MLB's best Spring Training record.

On the other hand, Girardi tried somewhat to shrug it off.

"I think sometimes on Opening Day, you worry about your players the first couple of days," he said. "You worry about your starters the first time through. I think there's some anxiousness there, getting excited about your first start. I'm sure there was some excitement there today."

Tanaka: Only thing to do is 'come back strong'

A quick aside: If the Yankees are going to contend this year -- and Sunday admittedly was just one of 162 games -- they must get much better pitching from their ace, Masahiro Tanaka. The right-hander allowed seven earned runs, including two homers, and didn't get through three innings on Sunday.

Tanaka on difficult start

Agreed, starting pitching is the Yankees' Achilles heel. The seven earned runs tied a career high for Tanaka and were the most allowed by a Yanks Opening Day starter since Roger Clemens gave up eight in 2002.

By contrast, Rays ace Chris Archer, who lived through a nightmarish 9-19 season in 2016, has seldom pitched better. He allowed just seven hits over seven innings, two earned runs, struck out five and threw 108 pitches.

Archer allowed full counts only three times, and each time he escaped.

At one stage, after the Yankees touched Archer for two runs in the second inning, he retired 14 of 15 batters in a row before Starlin Castro singled to lead off the seventh inning. That tense inning seemingly defined the right-hander's outstanding performance.

Archer fans five on Opening Day

Archer struggled to go deep into games last season. His pitch count was often unreasonably high after a few innings, and he was usually long gone by the seventh inning.

With Castro on first and the 12th consecutive Opening Day sellout crowd at Tropicana Field fearing a Yankees uprising, Chase Headley beat out a bunt single to third base before Archer fanned Judge and induced a flyout from pinch-hitter Aaron Hicks. But Brett Gardner singled sharply to left field, loading the bases.

That brought up 24-year-old Sanchez, who crushed 20 homers and batted .299 in 53 games after being called up by the Yanks last Aug. 2, an awesome Major League start that allowed him to finish runner-up to Detroit's Michael Fulmer for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

After hitting a scorching fly that sliced foul down the right-field line, Sanchez grounded out to shortstop to finish Archer's day.

Archer escapes a jam

Archer said he was "thinking just one pitch at a time" during that tense inning. "I said, 'I'm going to execute this. Now this next pitch, I'm going to execute this. And the next pitch I'm going to execute this.' It really wasn't complex."

Pausing, he added: "If Chase Headley is laying down a bunt in the seventh inning, you have pretty good stuff, because he's a good hitter, so he's kind of giving up."

That Archer and the Rays handled the "Baby Bombers" so well is significant to the victory.

"I felt strong in the seventh inning considering it was the first time I've gone that deep in a game in a long time," Archer said. "The seventh inning was a nice challenge -- bases loaded and Gary Sanchez up. I'm glad I could show the team that I could get out of that situation."

Archer on Opening Day victory

Sanchez, who hit .373 with five homers and 16 RBIs in 19 Grapefruit League games, was 0-for-5 and hit only one ball out of the infield.

Bird and Judge were a collective 1-for-8, with a walk and Judge's second-inning RBI double.

"They're good hitters, and I had a good night," said Archer. "I tip my hat to [new Rays catcher] Derek Norris. who had a great game behind the plate."

For Rays manager Kevin Cash, who lost the first two openers in his career, beating the Yankees made Sunday special, and shutting down the talented young Yanks made it even more rewarding.

"We saw too much of Gary Sanchez last year," Cash said. "He's going to be a great player. Greg Bird had a tremendous spring; he can hit. We're going to have to continue to find a way to shut them down, because we're going to see them a bunch, and they're going to be key pieces in their lineup for years to come.

"This was a big stage today. We had an awesome crowd, and Archer controlled the environment. At times, we can all let the environment control us, but that didn't happen today."

The Yankees have set the bar high for themselves this year. On Sunday, the Rays lowered it some, but it was just one game.

Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is Correspondent Emeritus for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.