Yanks take Rays set, close gap in East

Yanks top Rays, close gap in East

ST. PETERSBURG -- For all the hoopla of the night before, Thursday's series finale at Tropicana Field was a bit anticlimactic.

Neither Derek Jeter nor Alex Rodriguez were in the lineup. Bobby Abreu, Jorge Posada, Doug Mientkiewicz and Melky Cabrera were likewise absent. The message from this was clear: With a division title possible but no longer likely, New York was going to rest its big names for what it hopes will be a long postseason journey.

"It's kind of a testament to the type of team we are," said starter Phil Hughes. "I think when you go up against a guy who's had a really good year and he's a good pitcher, just the fact that we didn't roll over [was a positive], because it would've been really easy to do the night after we clinched a playoff spot."

Still, even with two-thirds of the usual lineup on the bench, the Yankees managed to emerge with a 3-1 victory against the Devil Rays' top pitcher and, in doing so, won the series and closed the gap in the American League East to two games.

It didn't start off all that pretty, with the Yankees connecting on just one hit against southpaw Scott Kazmir over the first five innings. Bronson Sardinha would probably tell you the hit was a big one, as it marked his first in the Majors and spoiled Kazmir's no-hit bid. Alberto Gonzalez would probably challenge this, since his sixth-inning single was also the first of his career.

Manager Joe Torre got a kick out of the fact that in a game in which the Yankees had but seven total hits, two would come from first-timers. Sardinha, on the other hand, was just relieved the day finally came.

"It was good to get it out of the way," Sardinha said. "It was a good feeling for both of us. It's just the start. The whole time I was up here, I was hoping to get a hit before I go home."

Gonzalez's line drive over shortstop Josh Wilson's head was good for a rally-starting hit. It wasn't much of a rally -- Johnny Damon doubled to push Gonzalez across and tie the game at 1 -- but it added pitches to Kazmir's count, which may have led to his exit after six innings rather than his return in the seventh.

"I think you understand how much of the game is pitching," Torre said. "And when you pitch like that, even though you score a few runs, it's still enough to win."

Kazmir fanned 10 Yankees through his six innings, and limited New York to three total hits and one run, so it was understandable that New York was glad to see him go. Kazmir left the game as the Major League strikeouts leader, with 239 this season.

Once the seventh inning began, though, all bets were off. Tampa Bay reliever Jon Switzer lasted just three batters before the Yankees had placed the winning and insurance runs on third and second base, respectively. Jose Molina singled up the middle a moment later, off Gary Glover, to score both for the game's final margin.

Thankfully for New York, Hughes had much the same effect on the Rays that Kazmir did on the Yankees, except the rookie lasted a bit longer.

"That's as good as I've seen him," Torre said. "I think his stuff was ... electric. And it's not judged on velocity; the ball was moving around.

"The kid's intelligent. He has baseball intelligence. He went out there and really applied what they'd been working on."

Hughes went seven strong innings and allowed a single run on four hits, fanned five and slipped just once, on the first hit of the day, with Carlos Pena homering in the fourth inning for Tampa Bay's first hit. The former Yankee, who was with New York briefly last season, extended his already career-high total to 44 with the blast.

"Today was the best by far," Torre said. "[Hughes] pitched himself out of jams. The only mistake he made was the home run. Carlos is very hot, obviously."

In addition to grabbing another win, there was another purpose to Thursday's night's game. Rookie Joba Chamberlain came in to pitch the eighth inning, marking the first time he'd ever appeared in back-to-back games. He responded to the Yankees' push to stretch him out for the postseason with flying colors, and after giving up a leadoff double, he encountered no more problems.

Chamberlain used 20 pitches to get out of the inning, fanned two and induced a lineout. More important, he impressed his manager.

"He threw a couple sliders ... and the velocity was good, and he made good pitches," Torre said.

"Basically, it was to see how my body reacts, and it was good," Chamberlain said. "It's another test, and hopefully, a pass. The way I feel, I'll be ready whenever they need me."

Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.