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CC Sabathia vs. Tampa Bay lives on, even if the Yankees won’t admit it

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NEW YORK — In a late September game last season, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Andrew Kittredge threw behind Austin Romine in a 12-1 blowout loss to the New York Yankees.

Maybe it was an accident — or retaliation for CC Sabathia hitting teammate Jake Bauers in the prior half inning — but things further escalated after the Yankees starter drilled then-Rays catcher Jesús Sucre with the first pitch of the next half inning.

Maybe that was an accident? Not according to Sabathia himself. The towering lefty was immediately ejected (and later slapped with a five-game suspension), and on his way out of the game made it quite clear who it was for, pointing and shouting unambiguously at the Rays dugout.

Eight months later, is there still bad blood between the two teams?

“Yeah no, there’s nothing there. It’s just baseball,” Romine said ahead of a weekend series between the Rays and Yankees that will determine who sits atop the American League East come Monday.

“Fans put a rivalry on it, but guys are just trying to get their job done, win ball games,” he added. “I don’t think there needs to be anything else added to it. Sometimes it may look like it gets heated, but baseball has a way of taking care of itself.”

Tell that to Sabathia. The game in which he hit Sucre was his last start of the 2018 regular season — and by getting ejected two innings short of a bonus benchmark he nearly forfeited a half million dollars, which the Yankees quietly paid him after the season anyway — but when the Yankees traveled to Tampa last week, there were still some sparks.

After Rays pitcher Yonny Chirinos drilled Luke Voit in the shoulder, Sabathia was seen yelling from the visiting team dugout. This time, however, there was no chance for vigilante justice on the mound. He was pulled before the next half inning but was still heated after the game.

Such was the stage for Sabathia’s start against the Rays on Friday night in the Bronx. The end result was a strong six innings of one-run baseball in a game that the Yankees would eventually walk-off, 4-3. But along the way, he failed to accomplish everything he set out to do.

“CC’s always got a little bit of an edge,” manager Aaron Boone said after the game. “He gets between the lines, he’s an awesome competitor.”

Sabathia himself was even more circumspect. He claimed to not remember what he shouted on the field. “Just excited about the game,” he said. “You know, we’re playing for first place.”

Echoing Romine and the apparent party line, Sabathia said there was no simmering tension between the two teams. Which would be a shame, if it were true, because the budding don’t-call-it-a-rivalry has already produced some electrifying baseball only a quarter of the way through the season.

The Yankees put together a three-run rally in the bottom of the ninth, culminating in Gio Urshela’s first walk-off hit. Watching from the dugout, Sabathia was confident the whole time. “We got this,” he said he was thinking as the Yankees’ lineup got to Rays flamethrower José Alvarado. “Especially when Gio came out. I said, ‘Turn off the lights.’”

That works for now. But the spotlight will be back on tomorrow with the Yankees a perilous half game up in the hotly-contested division. And if they want to extend that lead, they’ll need to get fired up again. Even if they don’t want to admit it.

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