Corey Kluber throws scoreless outing as Rays dominate Yankees

ST. PETERSBURG — Prior to Saturday night, Corey Kluber hadn’t thrown a pitch in the seventh inning this season. He hadn’t worked beyond sixth at any time, in fact, since completing a no-hitter for the Yankees on May 19, 2021. No matter how effective he seemed to be in control, the Rays have kept him to six innings each time.

They did so with the veteran starter’s long-term health in mind first and foremost, as they wanted to ensure the 36-year-old right-hander would be fresh for September and, ideally, October.

But for the first time in 32 starts, Kluber returned to the mound to start the seventh inning against the Yankees on Saturday and, in typically stoic fashion, struck out all three batters he faced on 11 pitches. With seven scoreless innings, Kluber led the Rays to a 2-1 triumph over the Yankees, their fifth straight win and 16th victory in their last 20 games.

“That’s what Corey Kluber is known for,” reliever Jason Adam said. “He goes deep into games. He dominates. … He put the team on his back today.

It was more or less the same for a Tampa Bay pitching staff that allowed just four runs in the past four games. The Yankees ended their 21-inning scoreless streak in the ninth inning, when Aaron Judge hit his 52nd homer of the season against Adam.

But Kluber brought the Rays even closer to the Yankees, who are 27-36 from a 52-18 start, in the American League East race. Tampa Bay’s torrid August-September bit him on New York’s heels ahead of Sunday’s sold-out series finale at Tropicana Field.

The AL Wild Card-leading Rays have just four return games left in the divisional race (three in the loss column), their smallest deficit since May 11. They have won 4½ games in the last six days, turning a run that seemed like more than months ago into one to watch in the final month of the season.

“I think we always knew we had a chance,” shortstop Taylor Walls said. “Nothing is given, however. They are still four games ahead. We cannot look too far ahead.

Kluber embodies this focused, methodical approach in everything it does. After three injury-shortened seasons, he’s one of only four players on the Rays’ opening day squad (alongside Adam, Walls and Randy Arozarena) to stay healthy and active all day. season. And he’s been steady most of the year, going six innings in 16 of 26 starts for the Rays while allowing three or fewer runs in 15 of those outings.

But he was spectacular on Saturday, limiting the freefall Yankees to just two singles while striking out four scoreless on walks. It was his 10th career start of at least seven innings with two or fewer hits allowed.

“Huge. Fantastic. Almost perfect, I guess,” Walls said. “It was amazing.”

So incredible, at such a key moment, that manager Kevin Cash fired him for the seventh inning while Jalen Beeks and Pete Fairbanks warmed up in the bullpen.

“I’ve had situations where I tried to run away from Cash and not let him find me,” Kluber joked. “He found me every time until tonight.”

“We needed him,” Cash said.

Kluber relied on his lead, which hit 1.1 mph faster than his season average, and he complemented that with a range of cutters and curveballs. He was efficient and consistent in the zone, throwing 62 of his 88 shots for strikes. The Yankees ran into a key out in the first inning, then squandered a two-for-and-out chance in the sixth, and Kluber gave up 14 straight between those two situations.

“They know how he attacks guys,” Cash said of Kluber, who has a 1.08 ERA in four starts against his former team this season. “But when he performs like that, it’s really difficult.”

With Kluber on his game, the Rays only needed a single point to win. Yandy Díaz gave them two in the third, taking advantage of Walls’ sacrificial bunt by throwing a two-run single that bounced off Yankees starter Clarke Schmidt and into right field.

“Our goal is just to be a little bit more focused, to stay on what we’re doing, and the goal is to win the division,” Díaz said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “It will never be easy. We never said it would be easy. But as long as we stay focused, I think we’ll be fine.

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