ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In a series with major wild-card implications for both teams, the Tampa Bay Rays landed a strong first punch with a decisive 7-2 victory over the New York Yankees on Friday night.
The Yankees entered the game as one of baseball's hottest teams, winning 10 of their last 12 games to move within 3 1/2 games of the Rays and a wild-card slot. Tampa Bay also had been playing well, winning six of their last eight after going winless on a six-game West Coast trip.
New York jumped on top in the first when an amped up Chris Archer walked Brett Gardner to lead off the game. Gardner then stole second and advanced to third on a Curtis Granderson fly ball. Archer managed to strike out Robinson Cano for the second out, but Alfonso Soriano fisted a ground-ball single down the first base line to score Gardner.
Archer settled down from that point on. The same can't be said of New York starter Hiroki Kuroda, who entered the game with an 11-8 record and a 2.41 ERA.
Kuroda got through the first inning unscathed, but the Rays bats erupted in the second. Matt Joyce and Kelly Johnson singled and with two outs Jose Lobaton jumped on the first pitch he saw and launched a three-run shot to right.
The long ball barrage continued in the third inning with Evan Longoria and Joyce going back-to-back with two outs. Ben Zobrist joined the home-run parade in the fifth with the Rays fourth homer of the night.
Prior to Friday night's shelling, Kuroda had given up just 12 homers on the season and none over his past eight starts. Kuroda's seven earned runs on the night made it his worst start of the year and almost matched the eight earned runs he'd given up in his last eight starts combined.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi was puzzled by Kuroda's struggles.
"That was really strange," Girardi said. "He just didn't have his stuff tonight. I didn't think his slider was extremely sharp. I didn't think he had the great command of his fastball. It's one of those nights he just didn't have his stuff."
A dejected Kuroda thought he could have done a better job limiting the damage.
"If I could have stopped with that one homer and not given up the other three, then I could have given my team a chance. I couldn't do that and I feel really bad about that."
Archer couldn't quite match the two-hit shutout he tossed at Yankee Stadium earlier in the year, but he gave it a good go.
Gardner was responsible for the second New York run, too. He tripled in the top of the sixth and scored on a Cano grounder.
Archer never allowed more than one baserunner in any inning until the seventh when a Mark Reynolds walk and an Eduardo Nunez single had the Yankees threatening with two outs. Chris Stewart then hit an Archer fastball deep to left, but new Ray David DeJesus made a nice running catch to end the threat.
Rays skipper Joe Maddon was very impressed with Archer's outing.
"Archer was good. He was really good. He had great stuff again and benefited from some pretty good defense, too."
Maddon also had high praise for DeJesus, who became a Ray just hours before the game.
"That was a big play. That could have really swung the game back, a little momentum on their side," Maddon said. "He had a really nice day and his personality fits the clubhouse very well."
Archer echoed Maddon's comments regarding the Tampa Bay defense.
"The defense was incredible. We made play after play, so I was just getting more comfortable out there."
Jamey Wright and Roberto Hernandez finished off the last two innings without incident to secure the Tampa Bay victory.
Maddon was typically upbeat following the impressive win.
"We came out and played really well against a very good pitcher. And there was such a nice way about us in the dugout, pregame," he said. "I'm really in tune to that kind of stuff with the guys, how they're interacting. All that stuff was good."
NOTES: After signing Delmon Young earlier in the week, the Rays were not done trying to bolster their outfield and their bench. On Friday, they acquired DeJesus from the Washington Nationals for cash considerations and a player to be named just hours before the game. ... After an off day Thursday, Tampa Bay on Friday began a stretch of 37 games in 38 days to finish the regular season. ... Coming into Friday night's game, Yankees hitters were batting .327 with 69 runs scored, 13 doubles and 13 home runs during their past 10 games. ... Rays shortstop Yunel Escobar leads all major league shortstops with a .315 batting average since the All-Star break. He has hit safely in 16 of his past 18 games after going 1-for-3 Friday night.