Yankees 2, Devil Rays 1

Preview | Box Score | Recap

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)—Jose Contreras is beginning to look like a pretty good investment for the New York Yankees.

The Cuban defector, who’s struggled at times since signing a $32 million, four-year contract last winter, pitched seven solid innings Friday night as the Yankees beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays 2-1 to move within one victory of clinching a playoff berth.

The AL East leaders won for the 11th time in 13 games and reduced the magic number for clinching their sixth straight division title to five.

“I feel good now. I feel comfortable on the mound. I’m able to pitch my game. I’m not thinking about any other thing. I’m just focused on the game,” Contreras said through an interpreter.

Contreras (6-2) allowed four hits, struck out four and walked one to improve to 5-1 in eight starts. Tampa Bay’s only run scored in the sixth on Rocco Baldelli’s groundout.

Jeff Nelson and Gabe White pitched the eighth for the Yankees.

Mariano Rivera worked the ninth for his 39th save in 45 opportunities. He has pitched 13 1-3 scoreless innings over his last 12 appearances.

Contreras started the season in the bullpen, but was demoted to the minors so he would have more opportunities to pitch. He spent more than two months on the disabled list with a right shoulder strain and rejoined the Yankees as a starter on Aug. 24.

“I think he’s going to be useful to us,” said Yankees manager Joe Torre, who may send Contreras back to the bullpen for the postseason.

“I’m pretty excited about tonight. He just mixed everything and threw a lot of strikes,” he said. “The quality of his stuff is not in question. The only thing that can hurt him is wildness.”

With one more win, the Yankees (95-58) would assure themselves of at least the AL wild-card spot.

Alfonso Soriano tied a major league record with his 12th leadoff homer of the season and Aaron Boone had a RBI double for the Yankees, who maintained their five-game lead over Boston in the AL East.

Soriano hit his 33rd homer, connecting against Doug Waechter (3-1) on the third pitch of the game. Soriano matched the single-season mark for leadoff homers set by Baltimore’s Brady Anderson in 1996.

It was the 20th leadoff homer of Soriano’s career and extended New York’s major league mark for leadoff homers in a season to 14.

“I never thought I would tie with Brady Anderson,” Soriano said.

Soriano has homered four times and driven seven runs in his last five games. He also hit a leadoff homer against Baltimore on Monday and has three of them off Tampa Bay pitching this season.

The Yankees added a run in the second on Boone’s RBI’s double.

Waechter settled in after that. He gave up three singles to open the fifth, but Karim Garcia was thrown out trying to score from second on Nick Johnson’s hit to right.

“I battled,” said Waechter, who allowed eight hits, struck out four and walked one in seven innings. “I felt like I had a good outing, but I just wasn’t good enough. That’s the way baseball works.”

Contreras allowed two runs and five hits in seven innings and was not involved in the decision in the Yankees’ 5-2 loss to Tampa Bay last Sunday.

This time, the Devil Rays were held to two hits before breaking through for a run in the sixth without getting the ball out of the infield.

Julio Lugo scored after reaching on an infield single and taking second on second baseman Soriano’s throwing error. Lugo moved to third on Marlon Anderson’s grounder and scored when Baldelli grounded to short, trimming NewYork’s lead to 2-1.

Notes

The Yankees have hit nine homers in the first five games of their 10-game road trip. … LHP Andy Pettitte goes for his 20th victory Saturday night. He is 10-1 lifetime against Tampa Bay, including nine straight wins. … The Devil Rays need to win three of their remaining nine games to avoid finishing with at least 100 losses for the third consecutive season. … Tampa Bay leads the AL in walks allowed (612), hit batters (87) and wild pitches (62). The last team to lead the league in all three categories was the 1981 Toronto Blue Jays. … The crowd of 21,435 was the fourth-largest at TropicanaField this season.

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