ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Tampa Bay's continued experimentation with relievers as starters has had mixed results, but it helped the Rays beat the best team in baseball on Friday night, and they'll hope for the same formula as the series continues Saturday at Tropicana Field.
"It's a little backwards, a little different, but it is what it is," Yankees' Brett Gardner said after Friday's 2-1 win for the Rays.
On Saturday, the Rays will start reliever Wilmer Font (0-3, 7.56 ERA), who is already with his third team in 2018, but has found surprising success growing into the unusual role. In six June appearances, he has managed to last longer in each outing -- 2/3 of an inning, then 1 1/3, then 2, then 2 1/3, then 3 1/3, and then 4 2/3 on Sunday against the same Yankees.
Font lasted one out shorter than the minimum needed for a win but held the Yankees to one run and four hits, striking out five. The same pitcher who had an 11.68 ERA in April and a 10.80 ERA in May now has a 2.51 ERA in June.
The Rays might not have a majority of fans in their own stadium, but they're finding ways to win.
"They were pretty loud," Rays manager Kevin Cash said of the Yankees fans on Friday night. "We've played the Yankees and Red Sox quite a bit, and they have a lot of fans who travel with them. I thought the loudest moment was when we got the final out, and that's what we were concerned about. Our fans showed up and supported us."
If the Rays want to win again Saturday, they'll have to do so against another pitcher who has gotten steadily better as the season has progressed. Sonny Gray (5-4, 4.8) hasn't faced the Rays yet this season, but he's 3-4 in his career against Tampa Bay with a 4.26 ERA, including a 4.32 in four starts last year.
Gray had a 6.67 ERA in April, then a 5.16 ERA in May. For June, his ERA stands at 2.63. Gray has allowed only seven earned runs in 24 innings.
The Rays put together 10 hits on Friday, but got nothing from one of their best hitters.
Kevin Kiermaier went 0-for-4 to drop to 0-for-13 since his return from the disabled list. The Rays did get three hits from catcher Wilson Ramos, who has stepped into the American League lead in All-Star voting among catchers.
Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez, next in the All-Star voting, went 0-for-4 to drop his season average to .194. Ramos may get traded before this year's deadline, but he's making the most of his time with the Rays.
No one will confuse the Yankees (50-23) with the Rays (35-40), but another bullpen day Saturday could flummox a New York batting order that managed only five hits Friday. And when they did get hits, the Yankees couldn't capitalize and went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
After the Rays dropped their first six games against the Yankees this season, they have won two straight as they try to again claw back to playing .500 baseball.