Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees’ slow march toward playoff elimination continued with another series loss, this time to the AL East rival Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.

However, unlike other series losses, this one has something of a moral victory for the Bronx Bombers. In the eighth inning, Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena was hit by an Albert Abreu fastball. Arozarena took exception, and the benches cleared.

As if that wasn’t enough, Arozarena then stole second, and then third. Abreu jawed something at him, and the benches cleared again. Oddly enough, no punches were thrown.

And just for good measure, Arozarena scored the final run in Tampa Bay’s 7-4 win. How in Mantle & Maris’s names could this possibly be a moral victory for the Yankees?

The answer is simple: These exchanges were absolute rock bottom for the Yankees. Forget any other blown lead this year, any injury, nothing compares.

This was the first time in several years when the Rays got into a spat with the Yankees, and New York didn’t have a leg to stand on. At all. They were at their worst and Tampa Bay capitalized on it. There will be no punching back this year, but more on that later.

It’s no secret that the Yankees and Rays don’t like each other, they never have. Putting the then-Devil Rays in the AL East made that automatic. Tampa Bay turning out some half-decent teams only fueled the rivalry.

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But regardless of it all, even with the Rays making the World Series more recently than the Yankees, nobody really took note of it. The Yankees were still the Yankees and the Rays were a scrappy young squad who stole some wins from their historic rivals. Even the rivalry’s most heated moments through the ages support that.

CC Sabathia putting his team on his back with the famous “That’s for you, <expletive>” in the Rays dugout’s direction made one thing clear. Hit one of ours when you’re down in a blowout, and one of yours is next. The Yankees also had the last laugh, making the playoffs while the 90-win Rays missed out on October.

Fast forward to the shortened 2020 season and Aroldis Chapman buzzed Mike Brosseau. Rays skipper Kevin Cash’s team lost the game, and yet he still unloaded on the press about his “stable” of hard-throwing pitchers. The Rays eventually won this round with Brosseau’s series-clinching homer off Chapman in the ALDS, but in a decisive Game 5. Both sides still found ways to look strong.

Not so much this time. The Yankees are all but officially mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Their pitchers couldn’t control the baseball and hit four Rays batters on Sunday. Tampa Bay took exception, succeeded in bullying their last-place “rivals,” and even scored the extra run.

Worst of all? Spring training aside, the Yankees won’t face the Rays again until mid-April. Such is the downside of full interleague play. Fewer interdivisional matchups that are generally more spaced out.

“If they want to come over here, they can come over here,” said Yankees reliever Ian Hamilton, who had a hit batter of his own in the game. “I wish we had another game against them.”

Well, since being last in the AL East is bad enough, let’s keep with focusing on 2024. In fact, let’s focus on April 19-21, specifically. That’s when the Rays and Yankees first meet in a weekend series at Yankee Stadium.

The goal is really simple. Forget every other game leading up to this one. Don’t worry about if Aaron Boone is still the manager or if it’s a new face and staff. It doesn’t even matter who’s in the lineup alongside Aaron Judge.

All that matters is that regardless of standing, the Yankees are winning this series. It can be a clean sweep. They can take two out of three. The only goal is winning the series and giving the Rays a long-overdue counterpunch in the mouth.

Want to know why? Because this season was a wakeup call. The days of “Savages in the box” are gone and there’s no quick solution to the Yankees rising from the ashes. The Yankees need to do a full autopsy on what went wrong this year and hopefully find a way to field a more competitive squad in 2024.

And nothing would show the Yankees are serious than these three games in April. One way or another, the Rays will arrive in the Bronx Friday the 19th and limp out Sunday the 21st.

The Yankees are winning this series for one reason, not unlike Rocky Balboa’s second bout with Clubber Lang: They have to.

Enjoy the victory lap, Tampa Bay. It won’t last.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.