This time around, the Rays surged back into the lead and hung tight. Thanks not to a veteran, but instead to Andy Phillips, who had his Minor League contract purchased by the Yankees just 27 days ago, the Bombers won the fourth and final seesaw battle, and they head home on a high note after a 7-6 win at Tropicana Field.
"This team showed me a lot of something [this series]," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "They feel good about themselves ... but we just kept hanging in there and grinding it. I think that was the most important thing today."
The Yankees took the four-game series, 3-1. It was their first series win since June 5-7, against the White Sox, and they climbed above the .500 mark for the first time since June 22.
New York was down, 5-4, with one out in the eighth, when a Robinson Cano sacrifice fly off reliever Casey Fossum scored Alex Rodriguez to tie the game. Phillips then blasted a single to left and advanced to second as Hideki Matsui beat the throw home for the go-ahead run.
"Base hits, plays; he saved our rear ends today," Torre said of Phillips, who finished 2-for-4 with two RBIs.
Derek Jeter, who homered and collected three RBIs, knocked in Phillips with a single a moment later for an insurance run that would prove necessary when the Rays collected two doubles and a run off Kyle Farnsworth in the eighth to make the final frame an interesting one.
With a one-run lead and the Rays in scoring position with just one out, the eighth inning had potential to be a great deal worse than it was, if not for Phillips. The first baseman showed cat-like reflexes when he snagged a line drive off the bat of Dioner Navarro, and then just as quickly, flipped the ball to second base in order to double off Ty Wigginton and end the inning.
Phillips was humble afterward.
"It's not a play you can practice," he said. "You just hope you can make the play. It's a sense of gratification to be able to contribute."
The inning alone provided enough excitement, but there were three lead changes before that to set the scene. Mussina said he could tell early on that Sunday's outing wasn't going to be a pretty one for him. He was right: The Rays used six singles and two walks to touch him for three runs over the first two innings.
"I got a lot of breaks," Mussina said. "I realized it was going to be a fight the whole time. Somehow, I just was able to hang in there and get outs when I needed."
Mussina was able to settle in afterward, however, and he spread out just five more hits over his final four innings to hold Tampa Bay off the board and give his teammates a chance to climb back in.
"They jumped on me pretty early in some counts," Mussina said. "It was hard. It was a lot of work. But you grind through six innings and give the guys a chance. Whether it's pretty or it's ugly, it all counts the same.
"The last three innings, I felt I threw the ball pretty well. I had a little more life on my fastball and had a little better location."
The Yankees again struggled at the plate early, this time against Edwin Jackson. It would take them four innings to warm up, but when they did, it was big -- the team hit for the cycle in the fifth frame.
Cano singled to kick of the fifth, and he scored on Phillips' triple. Catcher Wil Nieves then plated Phillips with a double, and he scored on Jeter's homer to right-center field.
"It was just a product of the bat," said Rays manager Joe Maddon of the Phillips triple that hooked sharply away from a waiting B.J. Upton in center field. "When you watch from behind home plate, the ball takes a left turn off a maple bat. They're exploding all over the infield. Those bats are dangerous."
Whether by skill or by bat, the Yankees turned a three-run deficit into a 4-3 lead. Reliever Ron Villone secured two outs in the seventh inning before leaving a 1-0 breaking ball hanging that Carlos Pena lifted over the right-field wall for a go-ahead two-run homer. But Phillips and the Yankees weren't quite ready to give up the fight.
"I know I feel good about the personality of this team," Torre said. "The fact that we lost the lead so late and were able to come back and do what we did ... this was very satisfying."
The victory was only the Yankees' fourth when trailing after seven innings.
"All said and done, it was probably better winning a game like that," Torre said. "Even though I don't want to do it again."