NEW YORK -- In a season when the youngest Yankees have merited most of the headlines, their longest-tenured player delivered two big hits, the second of which allowed Brett Gardner to stomp on Yankee Stadium's home plate at the center of a joyous celebration (although one that cost Aaron Judge part of his tooth).
Gardner sparked a game-tying rally with a leadoff triple in the ninth inning, then cracked the third walk-off homer of his career in the 11th as the Yankees rallied for a 6-5 victory over the Rays on Thursday evening at Yankee Stadium, closing within a half-game of the division-leading Red Sox.
"The last week and a half, we've been playing better baseball since the All-Star break," Gardner said. "We still fully believe that we have a good enough team to win the division and go to the playoffs. That's our goal."
Down to their final three outs, the Yankees evened the score against Alex Colome. Gardner dashed to third base after his drive to the left-center-field gap, and Gary Sanchez knocked a grounder through over-shifted infielders Adeiny Hechavarria and Tim Beckham, who watched the game-tying hit roll into left-center field.
"Once I hit it, I thought they had a really good chance of catching it," Sanchez said through an interpreter. "I noticed that both of them froze. What's important is I got the hit and we were able to tie the game there."
Aroldis Chapman recorded six outs, striking out four, to pick up the win ahead of Gardner's career-high 18th homer, which came off Andrew Kittredge. The Yankees won for the sixth time in seven games.
"That loss stunk, no doubt about it," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "That loss is going to stink on the first day of the season, the last day of the season, on whatever today is. We're not going to make a bigger issue. We had a chance to win a ballgame. It would have been nice to win. But things didn't go our way."
Archer held the Yankees to three runs -- including Sanchez's 15th homer -- and seven hits over six innings. Matt Holliday contributed a run-scoring fielder's choice that made it a one-run game in the eighth.
"Any time you're going up against a guy like Chris Archer, you've got your work cut out for you," Gardner said. "He's one of the best in the game. It's a tough game to win."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Rays up: Sabathia expressed displeasure after being lifted with one out in the fifth inning, having thrown just 86 pitches, but Yankees manager Joe Girardi thought Sabathia was beginning to lack movement. Miller made Girardi regret that quick hook by lacing a double well out of Judge's reach in right field that chased home Hechavarria and Peter Bourjos, giving Tampa Bay its first lead of the evening.
"I'm always upset to come out of a game, but it worked out for us," Sabathia said. "We got the win and that's all that matters."
It takes two: After newly acquired Rays reliever Dan Jennings permitted hits to the only two batters he faced in the eighth, Brad Boxberger was able to keep it a one-run game. Holliday's pinch-hit fielder's-choice grounder brought home Didi Gregorius with New York's fourth run, and Todd Frazier's two-out single pushed the tying run into scoring position, but Boxberger induced Tyler Wade to ground into an inning-ending 6-3 double play.
"He had some tough at-bats tonight," Girardi said of Wade. "It's a young kid. He's a 22-year-old kid. You're going to go through those moments. The biggest thing is to learn from them and slow the game down."
"On the play we're all going to talk about, we were in the right position. I think it's fair to say there was some miscommunication. Both guys appeared to give up on the ball assuming the other was going to get it. It's unfortunate the way it happened." -- Cash, on Sanchez's ninth-inning hit
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Sabathia's strikeout of Beckham in the fifth inning was the 2,800th of his career, which is the most among active pitchers. Sabathia also leads all active hurlers in innings (3,261 2/3), complete games (38) and quality starts (297), while ranking second in wins (232) and starts (499).
Girardi was ejected by home-plate umpire Stu Scheurwater in the home half of the seventh inning for arguing balls and strikes. It was Girardi's third ejection of the season.
"I just thought it was really inconsistent tonight," Girardi said. "He didn't want to hear it."
WHAT'S NEXT Rays:Austin Pruitt (5-1, 6.25 ERA) gets the nod Friday when the Rays meet the Yankees in a 7:05 p.m. ET contest. Pruitt is being recalled from Triple-A Durham to make the start. He is replacing Jake Odorizzi, who went on the 10-day disabled list with a lower back strain and is expected to miss two starts.
Yankees:Masahiro Tanaka (7-9, 5.37 ERA) will try to snap a three-start winless streak in the second game of the four-game series at Yankee Stadium. Tanaka has been hit hard in two losses to the Rays this season, allowing 13 runs and 17 hits in 5 2/3 innings (20.65 ERA).