ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)—There’s no secret to the success of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Strong starting pitching and a better than expected bullpen, along with sturdy defense and just enough offense keyed a blazing start in April. Now they’re using the same formula to close in on the AL East-leading New York Yankees after fading badly in the standings in June.
Tampa Bay forced Alex Rodriguez(notes) to wait at least one more day to join the 600-home run club and matched its longest winning streak of the season at seven games. The Rays also pulled within one game of the AL East-leading Yankees with their 11th win in 12 home games.
“It was a big win, and obviously it came in a good spot,” Joyce said of his two-out, sixth-inning homer that ruined an otherwise outstanding performance by New York’s Phil Hughes(notes) (12-4). “Phil was doing a great job of keep us off-balance. We had a tough time with him.”
Derek Jeter(notes) singled and Nick Swisher(notes) homered to begin the game against Davis (9-9), who settled to limit the Yankees to one hit—Robinson Cano’s(notes) sixth-inning, broken bat single—and three walks after that.
The 24-year-old Davis improved to 4-0 in five July starts after losing all five of his outings in June, when the Rays 11-14 and lost nine games in the standings to New York. Tampa Bay is 19-6 in July.
“I thought he had good stuff, even in the first inning. … To shut them down after giving up the home run really tells you a lot about his makeup,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “It was a well-pitched game, a well-played game on both sides. They hit a two-run homer. We hit a three-run homer, we win.”
Reliever Joaquin Benoit(notes) pitched a perfect eighth for Tampa Bay. All-Star Rafael Soriano(notes) got the final three outs, including retiring Rodriguez on a pop foul to begin the ninth, for his 29th save in 31 opportunities.
A-Rod’s quest was just part of the lure for a sellout crowd of 36,973 that packed Tropicana Field, where the Yankees are visiting for the first time since the death of owner and long-time Tampa resident George Steinbrenner.
With the teams owning the top two records in baseball and battling for first place in the AL East, the entire three-game series sold out in advance—a first for the Rays, who have never played before three consecutive full houses at home.
A moment of silence was observed before the game for Steinbrenner, who died of a heart attack on July 13. The Boss had been planning to watch the Yankees play in person this weekend for the first time since opening day at Yankee Stadium, when he received his 2009 World Series ring from team captain Derek Jeter and manager Joe Girardi.
Steinbrenner had a box at Tropicana Field and frequently made the 30-minute drive across Tampa Bay to attend games when the Yankees came to town.
“That’s a great gesture on their part. … We know that he’s with us, but we’re physically not going to see him and that’s different,” Girardi said before the game.
One of Steinbrenner’s sons, Hal, made the short trip Friday night and the other, Hank, was expected Saturday.
“It’s weird whether you’re in New York or here. I don’t think it really makes that much of a difference,” Jeter said, acknowledging that it felt a little strange to be playing here for the first time since the owner’s death.
“He’d pop in every once in a while when we played here, but not as much the last couple years maybe as he used to,” the Yankees shortstop added. “It’s still weird.”
With cameras flashing on every pitch, Rodriguez struck out with the bases empty in the first inning, flied to right field to end the third and popped out in foul territory in the sixth against Davis. The slugger entered the night 4-for-8 with two career homers against the right-hander.
Rodriguez finished 0-for-4 and is 9-for-34 with eight RBI’s in eight games since hitting No. 599 on July 22. He did not speak to reporters following the game.
Girardi said he doesn’t sense any frustration growing in Rodriguez over his at-bats or how long it’s taking to get No. 600.
“We didn’t get a lot of hits. Sometimes you have to look at the guy there on the mound. We got four hits tonight and three were in the first inning. His at-bats were fine. I was fine with them,” the New York manager said.
“This is a game that you’re trying to grind out. We understand that it’s not end of the world games, but these are important games in our division. We’re trying to win the series,” Girardi added. “After this series there’s a lot of baseball left, but these are important games.”
Hughes held the Rays to singles by Evan Longoria(notes) in the first, Willy Aybar(notes) in the fifth and John Jaso(notes) in the sixth before Joyce’s fourth homer of the season wiped out the 2-0 lead the Yankees took on Swisher’s 19th homer.
The New York starter, who gave up a homer on the road for the first time this season, allowed three runs and four hits over six innings.
NOTES: Injured Yankees LHP Andy Pettitte(notes) (strained left groin) could get a timeframe for throwing off a mound when his status is evaluated on Sunday. He did agility work and threw on level ground at the Yankees’ complex in Tampa on Friday. … Tampa Bay CF B.J. Upton(notes), who sat out two games with a left ankle sprain, returned to the lineup. … New York C Jorge Posada(notes), who sat out Thursday’s game with soreness behind his left knee, was back, too. … Yankees RHP Alfredo Aceves(notes) (strained lower back) will throw a bullpen session Saturday and could face hitters next week. … Rays INF-OF Ben Zobrist(notes) is still bothered by stiffness in his lower back and was out of the lineup for the second straight game.