January 30, 2023

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To 'Tampa Bay Walls,' Yanks are indeed beatable

4 min read
Infielder is everywhere for Rays, backing up assertion with big game with bat and glove

ST. PETERSBURG — After an ugly 7-2 loss to the Yankees in Thursday’s season-series opener, infielder Taylor Walls made it clear the Rays weren’t going to be intimidated. New York jumped out to the best start in the Majors, and it still holds a 4 1/2-game lead in the American League East, but as Walls said of Tampa Bay, “We’re here. We’re going to be here all year.”

“That team’s very beatable,” Walls said then of the Yankees, “and we know we can beat them.”

The Rays proved him right the past two days, earning a series split by beating New York the Rays’ way: with pitching and defense. More specifically, in Sunday’s 4-2 win at Tropicana Field, it was Shane McClanahan’s pitching and Walls’ defense.

While McClanahan put together another gem, dancing out of trouble throughout his six-inning start, Walls homered in the fifth and pulled a pair of key highlight-reel plays — an inning-ending double play he started in the sixth and an incredible stop, spin and throw in the eighth.

“It was just the Tampa Bay Walls,” McClanahan said. “This game was partly won because of the outstanding effort he gave, and we’re very lucky to have him.”

Walls insisted Sunday he wasn’t trying to throw any shade at the Yankees when he called them “very beatable.” He simply meant that any team can be beaten on a given day, he said, and he believes the Rays are capable of winning every time they take the field. The comment didn’t really register within New York’s clubhouse, but Walls understood it riled up some fans.

And he didn’t need anybody to tell him how intense the Rays’ rivalry with the Yankees can get, even if Tampa Bay has held the upper hand lately with back-to-back AL East titles.

“I feel like the past couple years, we’ve kind of had their number. And this year, I feel like, especially the way they’ve been playing to start the year, they’re coming in with something to prove,” Walls said. “So it was good to bounce back after the two tough games that we started the series with and get two wins.”

After scraping together enough offense to back starter Corey Kluber and three relievers in a 3-1 victory on Saturday, the Rays won Sunday while being out-hit, 9-2. It was the fifth time in franchise history they won while recording two hits or fewer, and the first time in club history they won without recording a single, double or triple.

Ji-Man Choi hit a game-tying homer in the second inning, and Walls – batting .152 with a .502 OPS on the year – went deep in the fifth for just his second hit in his past 34 at-bats and his first extra-base hit since May 3. The Rays scored two important insurance runs in the seventh without a hit; four Rays walked in a five-batter stretch, then Mike Zunino was hit in the back by Ron Marinaccio’s pitch.

McClanahan, who allowed a solo shot to Gleyber Torres in the second inning but nothing else, improved to 5-2 with a 2.01 ERA and 81 strikeouts, most in the Majors. The left-hander has worked at least six innings while allowing no more than one run in four straight starts, the Rays’ longest such streak since Blake Snell during his Cy Young Award-winning 2018 season.

In the second inning, McClanahan used a strikeout and a groundout to escape a first-and-third, one-out jam. He struck out back-to-back hitters then coaxed an inning-ending groundout to defuse a runners-on-the-corners, nobody-out situation in the third.

“When he needed strikeouts, he got big strikeouts,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “When he needed ground balls, he got big ground balls.”

What did he think got him out of those jams?

“My defense,” McClanahan said. “Taylor Walls.”

In the sixth, with two on and nobody out, that defense went to work.

Aaron Hicks ripped a line drive to third base — but right at Walls, who snared it. Isiah Kiner-Falefa then hit a grounder to the left side of the infield, and Walls recognized shortstop Wander Franco didn’t have a play on it. So Walls cut off the ball and made a quick throw to second baseman Vidal Bruján, who turned and fired to Díaz to complete the double play.

McClanahan pumped his fists and shouted on his way off the field, then found Walls in the dugout. Afterward, he offered the safe-for-work version of what he said.

“I said, ‘You’re a bad man,’” McClanahan said, smiling. “Yeah, along the lines of that.”

Walls made another huge play in the eighth, this time at second base. The Yankees had pulled within two runs on Aaron Judge’s homer off Colin Poche, and they had a runner on third with two outs and Hicks up. Hicks hit a grounder between Poche’s legs, but Walls anticipated the bounce, made a sliding stop, then turned and sailed an on-target throw to first base.

“Just a spectacular play,” Cash said. “He did a lot of things to really help us win the ballgame. That play, the double play … and then the home run, he had to feel good about it.”

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