ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Yankees’ last trip to Tropicana Field to face the Tampa Bay Rays, in June, was a forgettable one: They lost all three games, as well as their catcher, Gary Sanchez, to a groin strain.
The Yankees were back on Monday, and so was a healthy Sanchez, but the outcome did not improve much for team or player.
In the first inning of the 7-6 loss, Sanchez recorded his 10th passed ball of the season — tied for most in baseball. With Ji-Man Choi at the plate and Jake Bauers on second, Sanchez stabbed his glove at a Luis Severino breaking ball, only to miss it and have it ricochet off his foot into foul territory toward third base.
As Sanchez trotted after the ball, Bauers motored around third and headed for home when he noticed Sanchez’s pace. By the time Sanchez got to the ball and threw it to Severino at home, it was far too late, and the Rays had a 1-0 lead.
Afterward, a television camera caught Severino and Sanchez engaged in what appeared to be a heated exchange in the Yankees’ dugout, with Severino seemingly walking away in disgust and Sanchez throwing a cup.
Both Severino and Sanchez said the discussion was over a mix-up in signs, with Sanchez insisting that Severino retreat to the clubhouse and watch the replay. But Sanchez did own up to not hustling afterward.
“I should have gotten to that ball quicker,” Sanchez said through an interpreter. “I should have done a better job.”
But that wasn’t his only lackadaisical play. The Yankees were trailing by a run in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and two out when Sánchez hit a sharp grounder to Rays second baseman Daniel Robertson, who flipped it to shortstop Willy Adames. Running from first base, Aaron Hicks got to second before Adames could step on the bag. But because Sanchez was jogging to first base, Adames was able to throw him out to end the game.
“I should have run harder,” he said. “You learn a lot in this game, and this is one of those instances where you learn and put it behind you and look forward.”
Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said afterward that he would have to look at film to see the plays in question before making a decision as to whether or not a benching, or some other form of discipline, might be forthcoming.
Sanchez’s defensive lapses are nothing new. Since he was called up to the major leagues late in 2016, he has allowed 32 passed balls, most in M.L.B. during that span. His defense and lack of hustle even drew uncharacteristic criticism from the former Yankees manager Joe Girardi last season. Girardi’s handling of Sanchez was widely believed to have contributed to his ouster from the Bronx.
Sanchez had an opportunity to redeem himself with his bat in the top of the second inning, with nobody out and Giancarlo Stanton on second and Aaron Hicks on first. Sanchez popped out to short, and the Yankees managed just one run in the inning when Miguel Andujar drove in Stanton.
Severino, however, didn’t help his catcher’s cause. The Yankees’ normally reliable ace turned in his second consecutive shaky start, allowing 11 hits and six earned runs before he was lifted without an out in the sixth inning. He allowed two home runs, just as he did in his last start against the Cleveland Indians, before the All-Star break.
For much of the last month, the question shadowing the Yankees was whether they could overtake the surging Boston Red Sox in the American League East and escape the nail-biting proposition of a wild-card playoff game. But as the Red Sox inch further and further ahead, a hint of concern is creeping in about whether the Yankees will be able to hold on to one of the two wild card slots.
Not too long ago, such a question would seem ludicrous. But after Monday night’s loss, the Yankees’ wild-card cushion is down to seven games.
There is some reinforcement coming soon for the Yankees, with second baseman Gleyber Torres expected to rejoin the team for Wednesday’s final game of the three-game series. A 21-year-old rookie, Torres has been on the disabled list since July 5 with a right hip strain. Torres was in the vicinity Monday night, playing for the Yankees’ Florida State League team in Tampa.
Outfielder Clint Frazier isn’t expected to be available for the Yankees anytime soon, although the team received encouraging news on him Monday: Frazier received a diagnosis of post-concussive migraines, the team said, and Boone called it a “better-case scenario.”
But the bigger issue right now is what to do with their catcher who is batting .188, struggling defensively and showing a disconcerting propensity for not hustling.