ST. PETERSBURG -- In the moments after this became unofficially tagged as "The Slade Heathcott Game," the Yankees created a gauntlet near the dugout steps to thump their rookie outfielder, wildly celebrating the brightest highlight of his career to date.
Heathcott muscled through the crowd, gladly accepting the shoulder shakes, head pats and a full-body hug from Alex Rodriguez. Enjoying his first big league at-bat since late May, the 24-year-old slugged a three-run homer off Brad Boxberger that delivered a 4-1 victory over the Rays. The Yanks pulled to within three games of the idle Blue Jays in the American League East with the win.
"Cloud Nine. Just awesome," Heathcott said. "I got a good pitch to hit and put a pretty good barrel on it. I don't think there was much of anyone left in the dugout, so that's awesome."
Having been no-hit by Erasmo Ramirez into the eighth inning, the Yankees were down to their final out in the ninth. Brett Gardner walked and stole second base, then raced home as Rodriguez ripped a game-tying double up the gap in right-center field, prompting a terrific emotional swing in the dugout.
"That's probably the most excited we've been all year," Gardner said. "Every game from here on out is important."
Rodriguez said that Gardner's stolen base changed the tone of the at-bat, with Gardner's speed allowing Rodriguez to just look for a single. Gardner waited until Boxberger's second pitch, then swiped the bag on a 1-0 offering without a throw from catcher J.P. Arencibia.
"I was just waiting on Alex to hit a two-run homer," Gardner joked. "[Boxberger] wasn't super quick to the plate, he was a little slow to the plate, so after the first pitch, I decided to take second."
An intentional walk was issued to Brian McCann, bringing Heathcott up. The Yanks' first-round selection in the 2009 Draft, Heathcott's career has been stalled by injuries, and this year was no different.
A late-May opportunity saw Heathcott play his first six big league games before being sidelined by a Grade 2 right quadriceps strain, and this marked his first Major League at-bat since May 27. He had entered the game as a defensive replacement in the eighth inning.
"You get in the box, you're trying to crush a ball," Heathcott said. "Trying to get a base hit, trying to score runs. Luckily, I think the adrenaline took over there. I didn't really think much of anything but see the ball."
Boxberger left a first-pitch fastball over the plate and Heathcott clubbed it the opposite way to left field, clearing the fence for his second career homer.
"Just tremendous. You get caught up," Rodriguez said. "I become a fan when you're watching a kid with so much talent. A big, signature Yankee moment for him. It's a moment he'll never forget."
Gardner suggested that Heathcott's inexperience may have worked in his favor against Boxberger, who has converted 34 of 40 save chances this year.
"It's probably an advantage that he hasn't seen him, because he's got a really, really, really good changeup, and Slade didn't seem too concerned about that," Gardner said. "He was ready for the fastball, and he put a great swing on it."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch, on Facebook and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.