delicious-scenario-awaits-yankees-—-if-they-can-win-tense-game-5

Well, sure. Why not?

The Yankees and the Rays seem to derive maximum satisfaction out of playing each other, outwitting each other, outthinking each other, outmaneuvering each other. They may not particularly enjoy each other’s company, won’t ever be caught grabbing postgame beers and small talk, probably wouldn’t be caught exchanging jerseys, even in a less sanitary-conscious time.

But the big, bad Yankees from Gotham and the little-engine-that-could Rays from Tampa-St. Pete sure do seem like a perfectly matched set, regardless of what the regular season might have insisted.

From the first pitch Blake Snell threw to DJ LeMahieu on Monday night, this best-of-five seemed destined for a Game 5, looked to be steaming toward one, careening toward one, the teams jabbing each other, dancing with each other, feeling each other out, sticking and moving and inching toward this inevitable climax.

Now we get exactly that.

We get one game for the season. We get one game, with the winner drawing the Astros in the AL Championship Series, and if it’s the Yankees there are all kinds of ghosts and hard feelings awaiting them there, a whole lot of old scores to settle.

Aaron Judge and the Yankees celebrate after their Game 4 win over the Rays.
Aaron Judge and the Yankees celebrate after their Game 4 win over the Rays.EPA

First things first, though.

First comes Game 5, which is the Yankees’ reward for a 5-1 victory in Game 4 Thursday night in San Diego, where they scratched out an early lead, held on for dear life for a few innings, then let their bullpen protect the lead like an army of bodyguards, and waited for their bats to tack on enough insurance runs to finally allow an exhale.

“I knew they’d come ready to play,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I knew they’d relish the opportunity with a win-or-go-home game and didn’t notice much difference with them, business as usual. But there was an edge just before we took the field. And everyone came up big tonight.”

Luke Voit for one, who blasted a second-inning home run that broke the ice for the Yankees. Jordan Montgomery for another, chipping in four solid innings in the biggest game of his career, wiggling out of what could’ve been a big third inning with minimum damage. And Gleyber Torres, who hit a ball that might still be traveling if it hadn’t collided with the upper third of the Western Auto Supply building beyond left field.

“A real team effort,” Boone said.

And so it will be Friday. Gerrit Cole will get the ball, of course, because that’s why he is here, because that’s why the Yankees recruited him and paid him. But everyone will be on call for the Yankees, same as for the Rays. Tampa Bay will see Cole’s three days’ rest and raise, sending Tyler Glasnow out on two days’ rest. Then we’ll see a full ensemble emerge from both bullpens.

“They’ll put up a fight [Friday],” Cole said, “just like we will.”

It will be a stressful day and a fretful night, and that’s as it should be with the ALCS on the line, with the Astros waiting for the winner. The Astros, of course, have eliminated the Yankees three times since 2015, so that would be motivation enough even if Houston hadn’t spent the past couple of years adding a percussive element to the party.

First things first, though.

First comes Friday night, Petco Park, and if the Yankees and Rays don’t have the kind of long history the Yankees and Red Sox brought to their October rubber-game classics of 2003 and 2004, there is certainly plenty of antagonism to go around. That has mostly stayed in check across these first four games, and it would be surprising if any of it spilled out in Game 5.

The stakes are enough. The game is enough. Every at-bat will feel like a miniature season, every pitching change, every baserunning choice and defensive gem or gaffe. The Yankees finally figured out Randy Arozarena on Thursday; can they do that four more times? The Rays finally kept Giancarlo Stanton in the yard Thursday; can they do that four more times?

“We’ve got a lot of grit on this team,” Voit said, “and we knew it would be a crazy and suspenseful series and we were up for the challenge no matter what happened. We’re locked and loaded.”

With all kinds of amazing possibilities awaiting them if they win.

First things first, though.