Yanks reclaim swagger, and first place alone

Yanks reclaim swagger, and first place alone

Yanks reclaim swagger, and first place alone
ST. PETERSBURG -- After marching out of a rare closed-door team meeting to reclaim sole possession of first place in the American League East, the Yankees are now intent on holding the top spot in the division from here on out.

New York used a key seventh-inning throwing error by the Rays' Elliot Johnson to vault to a 6-4 victory on Wednesday at Tropicana Field, gaining momentum heading into what promises to be a terrific showdown for the lead this weekend in Baltimore.

"We took advantage of one of their mistakes, and that's what we're going to have to do as September goes along here," said Russell Martin, who homered and had three RBIs. "Every game's going to be tough, and when a team gives you something, you've got to take it."

The Yankees had been alone in first place for 84 straight days before the Orioles joined them on Tuesday, but Baltimore moved down a rung with a 6-4 loss to the Blue Jays while the Rays fell 2 1/2 games back of the AL East lead.

"Hopefully, it just propels us to play good baseball," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I think it's a good feeling, but we know we have a lot of business to take care of."

Girardi's squad stepped out of the visitors' clubhouse for a meeting of approximately 20 minutes before Wednesday's game, bouncing around ideas of ways to cure its recent slide in the standings.

After Wednesday's victory, Alex Rodriguez suggested that the Yankees should adopt a theme of "executing the little things" for the rest of the year.

"Home runs are sexy, but ultimately they don't win championships," Rodriguez said. "It's about timely hitting, good at-bats, passing the baton. Tonight, we did all that."

In a pregame chat, Girardi seemed resistant to having his homer-happy club bunt, but the Yankees took the lead in the seventh inning by getting away from their slugging approach, setting up Johnson's decisive error.

Andruw Jones and Steve Pearce opened the frame with singles off Tampa Bay starter Matt Moore, and Jayson Nix dropped a sacrifice bunt to advance both runners into scoring position.

Derek Jeter greeted Kyle Farnsworth with a grounder to second base, and with speedy pinch-runner Ichiro Suzuki breaking from third base, Johnson hurried a wild throw past catcher Jose Lobaton to let two runs score.

"It was the play that cost us the game," Johnson said. "You never want to be in one of those situations. You never want to be that guy."

Jeter, who had three hits in the game, applauded the idea of a Yankees club thinking smaller.

"There's going to be times when you have to do that," Jeter said. "You're not always going to be able to come up and hit home runs all the time."

Tampa Bay's pitching staff struck out 15 Yankees, nine of them by Moore, but New York was still able to snap the offensive doldrums that limited it to six or fewer hits in its previous five games.

A-Rod started the damage in the fourth inning with an RBI double, and Martin followed by bashing a two-run ground-rule double. Martin also slugged a sixth-inning homer, finally lifting his batting average above the Mendoza line to .202.

"I feel like I've been swinging the bat better for the last couple of weeks now," Martin said, "and now's the time to get hot, so hopefully I can stay that way."

The Yankees have been marveling at Martin's bad luck, commenting that he has been robbed by hitting the ball right at people, so they're hopeful that this is the beginning of a long-awaited correction.

"Throw the numbers out the window, man," Nick Swisher said. "That's not the type of player that he is. To see him having this success late in the year is great, because we need him."

Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda gave back a pair of leads in his six-inning outing before Jeter's grounder put New York ahead for good.

"Although I gave up some runs, I just wanted to minimize the damage, and somewhat, I was able to do that," Kuroda said through an interpreter.

Evan Longoria put the Rays on the board with a first-inning RBI single, and in the fifth, Sam Fuld worked a two-out walk and Desmond Jennings singled to set up Ben Zobrist's game-tying two-run triple.

Kuroda served up a sixth-inning solo blast to Luke Scott that re-tied the game, wrapping up his night allowing eight hits with two walks and three strikeouts.

"I thought he was pretty good," Girardi said. "He made a couple mistakes; the big mistake probably was he was ahead of Fuld, 0-2, and that inning led to two runs. We got him some runs, he held them in check and we won the game."

The Rays had one last gasp in the seventh, as Matt Joyce lifted a flare to shallow left field that Jeter -- somewhat hobbled after rolling his ankle in Tuesday's game -- flagged down with a burst of speed, stranding two men aboard and potentially saving the lead.

Jeter's hustle on the play recalled an off-the-cuff comment that general manager Brian Cashman offered shortly before game time, urging Yankees fans not to lose hope as this airtight race picks up momentum.

"Buckle up -- it's going to be a [wild] ride here in the last month," Cashman said. "I would just tell our fans who care deeply about us and pay a lot of money, I would tell them to hang in. We're going to sprint this one out and try to do them proud."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.