Yankees historians -- Jorge Posada included -- couldn't help but make the immediate connection between Friday's victory and one 31 years earlier, when Bobby Murcer's two-run single in the ninth lifted New York to a 5-4 win over Baltimore in the club's first game after Thurman Munson's death.
Nick Swisher played Murcer's role this time, ripping a 2-1 slider from Lance Cormier down the right-field line to score Curtis Granderson with the winning run. And just like Murcer had on Aug. 6, 1979, Swisher homered earlier in the night, with his leadoff blast in the eighth tying the score.
"You know, I thought the club played like Mr. Steinbrenner expected. Fought back twice, tied the score twice and then we won it in the end," said manager Joe Girardi, who occasionally choked back some tears during the pre- and postgame news conferences. "Just a wonderful night. I think The Boss would be proud and Bob Sheppard would have been proud to be the PA for that game."
Swisher's line-drive single capped an emotionally cathartic night for the Yankees. The pregame tribute to Steinbrenner and Sheppard left more than few Yankees wiping their eyes. The absence of public-address announcements throughout the night -- an homage to the "Voice of Yankee Stadium" -- was, in the words, of Derek Jeter, odd and awkward.
Players who are usually able to narrow their focus to the game at hand admitted that they found their minds wandering to the passing of two Yankees' legends, to how much a win would mean in this first game back.
"You can't help but think about it," Jeter said. "Because Bob Sheppard's voice wasn't there, you couldn't help but notice he was gone. When we were losing, every time I got out, I heard The Boss' voice in my ear."
And the Yankees were losing for much of the night. In search of his ninth win in as many starts, CC Sabathia spent most of his time on the mound working from the stretch. Thirteen men reached base against him in his seven innings, but he limited the damage to four runs -- three earned. Twice the Rays loaded the bases against him with none out; twice they scored only one run.
The latter of those two times came in the seventh, when Tampa Bay had the sacks loaded for cleanup hitter Carlos Pena with the score tied. Sabathia struck out Pena swinging for the third time on the night, induced a weak RBI groundout from Ben Zobrist and then got another grounder from Kelly Shoppach.
"CC gets the bases loaded in the seventh and only gives up one run to the heart of the order," Girardi said. "That's what Mr. Steinbrenner talks about -- a warrior and being tough -- and that's exactly what CC did."
"That's why he's the ace," Tampa Bay's B.J. Upton said. "They pay him to get out of jams like that. He threw the ball well, and we didn't capitalize on a couple of situations. But that's baseball, and that's going to happen."
Sabathia's resilience kept the Yankees in the game, setting the stage for the first of two comebacks in the sixth. With two outs in the inning and Tampa Bay starter James Shields having retired seven in a row, Robinson Cano and Posada belted back-to-back home runs to abruptly tie the score and wake Yankee Stadium from its slumber.
Posada's homer to right came on a 3-0 delivery from Shields, the first of his 253 career long balls to come on that count.
"In that situation you've got a chance to tie the ballgame," Posada said. "You're going to get a good pitch to hit. I just wanted to hit it hard."
Two innings later, after the Rays had edged ahead, Swisher retied it with his own home run to right. After crossing home plate, the right fielder kissed the "GMS" patch freshly stitched just above the heart of the Yankees' uniforms.
"When you're putting on the pinstripes, you know Mr.Steinbrenner in some way," Swisher said.
His single an inning later sent the Yankees home winners and the fans into a frenzy.
"It had to happen like that," said Mariano Rivera, who fittingly earned the win with a scoreless ninth inning. "The drama, all the fans getting into it, and then at the end, winning the game was the most important."
Said Jeter: "It's another one of those special moments here at Yankee Stadium."