Yankees and Gray implode as division hopes all but dashed

Those who believe the Yankees will waltz past the Twins in the AL wild-card game Tuesday night in The Bronx should pause and consider what happened at Yankee Stadium on Thursday evening.

With the news from Fenway Park that the AL East-leading Red Sox were getting spanked by the Astros, the Yankees grabbed a three-run lead in the fourth inning against the already checked-out Rays.

Sonny Gray wasn’t sharp, but through four frames had surrendered one run. Six more outs and Joe Girardi would turn it over to the bullpen that would close out a victory and pull the Yankees to within two games of the Red Sox and make for an interesting final weekend of the regular season.

Then Gray wilted on a cool evening, Gary Sanchez experienced a nightmarish inning behind the plate and Jonathan Holder turned to goo as the Rays scored seven runs to all but extinguish what was left of the Yankees’ slim chances to catch the Red Sox, who lost.

Instead of getting to two back with three games to play, the Yankees absorbed a hard-to-look-at 9-5 defeat witnessed by 32,933.

So with three games left, the Yankees trail the Red Sox by three lengths and their tragic number is one.

Now the Yankees can use the remaining tilts to prepare for the Twins, a one-shot deal that is by no means a lock for the Yankees, who will start staff ace Luis Severino.

Gray, who would likely be the Yankees’ Game 1 pitcher if they advance to the ALDS against the Indians or Astros, didn’t make it to the end of the fifth and is 4-7 in 11 starts as a Yankee.

He gave up six runs on six hits (two homers) and issued a season-high five walks.

The Rays scored seven runs in the fifth and Sanchez was a big reason. He failed to block a wild pitch, committed a throwing error and was charged with his MLB-high 16th passed ball. On the physical side of things, Sanchez caught a ball under the mask in the second inning and was hit by a 95-mph pitch in the upper back by Tommy Hunter in the bottom of the fifth.

On the positive side, Brett Gardner (21), Aaron Judge (51), Greg Bird (9) and Aaron Hicks (15) homered. Bird fouled a ball off his left knee in the fifth, and remained in the game before being pinch hit for in the eighth.

Evan Longoria waves home Mallex Smith after the ball gets away from Gary Sanchez.Paul J. Bereswill

Gray had retired eight of nine batters before Mallex Smith and Corey Dickerson singled with one out in the fifth to put runners at the corners for Evan Longoria.

Gray jumped ahead of Longoria 0-2 and at 2-2 bounced a pitch in the dirt that Sanchez couldn’t block. Smith scored and Sanchez’s throw to Gray covering the plate glanced off the pitcher’s glove and allowed Dickerson to get to third.

With the count full on Longoria, Gray locked him up with a breaking ball for a third strike and the second out. Sanchez allowed a pitch to get between his legs and by him, and Dickerson raced home to make it 4-3.

Lucas Duda walked and following a brief visit from pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Gray watched Wilson Ramos hit the first pitch over the center-field fence for 5-4 Rays lead.

Adeiny Hechavarria followed with a single, and Joe Girardi replaced Gray with Jonathan Holder, who hit Daniel Robertson and gave up an RBI single to Cesar Puello and a two-run triple to Peter Bourjos that pushed the Rays’ lead to 8-4.

Chasen Shreve took over for Holder and struck out Smith. Shreve then allowed a home run to pinch-hitter Trevor Plouffe in the sixth inning.

Bird’s home run into the right-field seats had upped the Yankees’ lead to 4-1 in the fourth against Chih-Wei Hu.

Gray gave up a run and four walks in the first three innings but needed just six pitches to register a clean fourth and protect a 3-1 advantage.

The Yankees upped the lead to 3-1 in the second, when Jacoby Ellsbury singled with one out, moved to second on a passed ball charged to Ramos and scored from second on Todd Frazier’s single to left-center.

Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge greeted Jake Faria with back-to-back homers to right that opened the home first inning. It was the first time the Yankees started a game with consecutive home runs since April 16, 2012, when Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson did it against the Twins.

The blasts, which each reached the second deck of the right-field seats, erased a 1-0 deficit that Dickerson gave the Rays with a home run off Gray in the top of the first inning.

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