With the Rays trailing, 1-0, Sean Rodriguez led off the ninth against newly anointed Yankees closer Dave Robertson by lacing a single through the left side of the infield. Pinch-hitter Brandon Allen then singled to right and moved to second on Nick Swisher's throw, putting runners on second and third with no outs.
Ben Zobrist drew a walk to load the bases before Carlos Pena struck out looking. B.J. Upton then hit a sacrifice fly to right that scored Rodriguez and tied the score at 1.
That brought Matt Joyce to the plate with a disturbing stat staring him in the face: Rays hitters were in the midst of a streak of 20 consecutive hitless at-bats with runners in scoring position, dating back to Sunday's loss to the Athletics.
Robertson got ahead in the count, 1-2. But after fouling off the fourth successive curveball he saw, Joyce connected on Robertson's fifth pitch, a fastball that Joyce said "got a little bit too much of the plate." As the ball sailed out toward right field, Joyce crumpled to the ground after rolling his left ankle in the batter's box. He recovered in time to see the ball clear the wall for a three-run homer that gave the Rays a three-run cushion.
"It's always great to come up with a big hit like that, especially against the Yankees," Joyce said. "And it's just hard to celebrate when you're lying on the ground after you rolled your ankle."
Joyce managed to get around the bases in Kirk Gibson fashion -- minus the fist-pumping -- return to the dugout and get his ankle taped so he could play defense in the bottom of the ninth.
Falling down "hurt my pride a little bit, but after the ball went over the fence I think the pride got a good kick," Joyce said. "Knowing it was a home run made it definitely easier to run around the bases."
The Rays' ninth-inning outburst erased a night full of offensive frustrations that saw the team strand 11 runners. So the dramatic end felt like a soothing tonic to the offense.
"They've done a great job," Joyce said of the Yankees' pitching thus far in the series. "You kind of have to tip your cap to the Yankees for really keeping us and holding us down -- especially with runners in scoring position. Their pitchers have been tough. They've pitched us really well. You have to tip your cap to them. They've done a phenomenal job."
While not seeing Rivera in the ninth appeared significant on Wednesday night, Rays manager Joe Maddon noted that facing Robertson is no picnic.
"He's got great stuff, and he's very good at what he does," Maddon said. "I think he threw 25 or 26 pitches [on Tuesday] night, and it may have spilled over into tonight a little bit.
"The ninth inning is a different inning than the seventh or eighth inning. It's a different inning based on emotion. The passion that inning possesses is just different. He's going to be fine; he's good. We just happened to get him tonight."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi echoed Maddon's sentiments about his new closer, now that Rivera is out for the season.
"I don't think anyone will ever take for granted what Mo was," Girardi said. "But let's not forget, Mo blew a save the first game of the year [against the Rays]. As I've said, I think we can over-evaluate this on two save opportunities and we could talk about this ad nauseum if we wanted to. ... Let's give the kid a chance before we're all ready to predict who he was."
Meanwhile, the Rays received inspired pitching from starter Jeff Niemann and closer Fernando Rodney.
Niemann allowed one run on six hits while walking one and striking out five en route to a no-decision.
"That was as good as I've seen [Niemann] in a while," Maddon said. "That was dominating, in a sense. ... I thought he had a good look and a lot of confidence about what he was doing tonight. It was nice to see that. That's the Niemann I'm used to seeing."
Rodney covered the eighth and ninth innings to pick up his second win of the season.