Yanks top Rays, keep heat on in AL East

Yanks top Rays, keep heat on in AL East

NEW YORK -- Luis Severino's confidence bounced back with a sharp tuneup as he prepares for the first postseason start of his career, backed by homers off the bats of Starlin Castro, Greg Bird and Aaron Hicks as the Yankees defeated the Rays, 6-1, on Wednesday evening at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees (89-69) improved to a season-high 20 games over .500, though they remain three games behind the Red Sox -- who beat Toronto on Wednesday -- in the American League East.

"We have to play our season and not worry about Boston," Severino said. "We are in the Wild Card and you have the opportunity to go to the playoffs. We're hitting good, we're playing good. We're winning."

Severino's terrific outing

The Yankees and Rays have one more game left in their series, Thursday at Yankee Stadium, before New York hosts the Blue Jays starting Friday for the final three games of the regular season. The Red Sox finish up their regular season with a four-game series against AL West-champion Houston at Fenway Park, beginning Thursday.

"I think our team is a lot different than we were coming out of the [All-Star] break," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "We had a number of players injured and we just weren't very healthy. We kept it together, but I think it's one of the reasons we've played so well in the last six weeks, because we've been so healthy."

Girardi on Severino's outing

Now lined up to start a potential AL Wild Card Game, Severino struck out nine while holding the Rays to four hits and a walk over six innings, leading the Yankees to their 11th win in 12 home games. The right-hander will complete his regular season holding a 14-6 record and a 2.98 ERA in 31 starts, striking out 230 batters in 193 1/3 innings.

"He throws 100 [mph]," said the Rays' Steven Souza Jr. "Any time a starter can do that, that's pretty impressive. But he can throw his slider for a strike and bury it. He can throw it when he's ahead; when he's behind, he can pump it in there 100. To be able to throw two pitches like that consistently around the zone makes it really tough."

Hechavarria's solo home run

Adeiny Hechavarria's fifth-inning homer accounted for the only scoring off Severino, who threw 66 of 91 pitches for strikes. After Aaron Judge raked a two-run double in the fifth inning, Castro and Bird hit back-to-back shots and Hicks added a two-run blast as the Yankees batted around in the sixth, chasing Tampa Bay starter Matt Andriese.

"We can just win. That's all we can do," Bird said. "I feel like we've done a good job with that. That's what we focus on, playing our game and getting our work in, and we'll see what happens."

Castro, Bird and Hicks go deep

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Bang the gavel: Andriese had limited the Yankees to a pair of hits through four innings, protecting a one-run lead as he returned to the mound for the fifth. Jacoby Ellsbury walked and Hicks smashed a single that deflected off second baseman Brad Miller's glove. One out later, with Hicks running, Judge mashed an 81.4-mph curveball down the left-field line that gave the Yankees a lead they would not relinquish. Judge has reached base in 22 straight games.

"Leadoff walks, we talk about them a lot,," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "They come back and get you, and they got us. Probably the wrong guy to come up there, Aaron Judge, with two guys on base. Capitalizing on it."

And belly to belly: Castro sent Andriese to the showers with his second homer in as many games, a solo blast to left field opening the sixth inning that marked his 16th of the year. The Rays called upon Xavier Cedeno, and Bird greeted the left-hander with a drive into the right-field seats, Bird's eighth homer of his injury-shortened season. It was the 10th time this year that the Yankees have hit back-to-back home runs.

Bird goes back-to-back

"I feel pretty good at the plate," Castro said. "The most important thing is, I feel really healthy, I feel really strong. I'm just trying to finish the season strong."

SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
With nine strikeouts, Severino moved into a tie with CC Sabathia for the third-most strikeouts in a single season by a Yankees pitcher (230). Sabathia reached that mark in 2011. The only Yankees hurlers with more were Ron Guidry, who fanned 248 in his 1978 AL Cy Young Award season, and Jack Chesbro, who struck out 239 while hurling a Major League-leading 454 2/3 innings in 1904.

"It means I'm doing great," Severino said, with a smile. "I'm mixing my pitches and commanding my fastball, and my breaking pitches, too."

WHAT'S NEXT
Rays: Jake Faria (5-4, 3.33) gets the nod in the series finale against the Yankees on Thursday at 7:05 p.m. ET at Yankee Stadium. The rookie right-hander's only career start in N.Y. came on July 30, his 24th birthday. He lasted just four innings, which remains the shortest start of his Major League career.

Yankees: Sonny Gray (10-11, 3.31) will make his 11th start as a Yankee on Thursday as the club completes its three-game series with the Rays. The right-hander picked up the win in his last start at Toronto, holding the Blue Jays to a run over six innings. He's 4-6 with a 3.12 ERA in 10 starts for New York.

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Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch, on Facebook and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat.

Bill Chastain has covered the Rays for MLB.com since 2005.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.