Like he has all season, Mussina tried to steer the Yankees in the right direction. Helped by a costly Rays baserunning gaffe and some luck, Mussina pitched well into the seventh inning Tuesday as New York won the opener of a three-game series, 7-2.
Xavier Nady hit a long two-run homer off a Tropicana Field catwalk and A-Rod clubbed his 548th career home run, equaling Mike Schmidt for 12th place on the all-time list. Though it didn't affect the Yankees' seven-game deficit in the American League Wild Card race, the victory gave Mussina 17 wins, pulling him to within three of his long-elusive 20-win plateau.
"We're just trying to win ballgames any way we can," Mussina said. "I'm just trying to contribute on my day, so today was a decent day. We battled, we got out of some situations, we got some big hits when we needed it, and the bullpen was solid again."
Mussina's work pushed him past Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Eppa Rixey for sole possession of 34th place all-time list with 267 career victories. Scattering 10 hits while walking one and striking out eight, Mussina gave the Yankees their second win after two games of a crucial 10-game road trip that will determine their September fate.
"It's an important one, because we need wins," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "We needed Moose to pitch well tonight, and that's exactly what he did."
The Rays offered a little assistance. On the play when Mussina tried his hand as a traffic cop, Eric Hinske hit a deep drive off the wall in left-center field, with Nady and center fielder Johnny Damon giving chase.
Hinske rounded second with his head down, and never picking up third-base coach Tom Foley, slid into third base -- which was already occupied by Willy Aybar, who was forced to try for the plate and was thrown out easily. Mussina also had the benefit of a big double-play ball in the fourth inning that erased a two-on, nobody-out situation.
"You've got to get a couple of breaks sometimes," Mussina said.
These were the kinds of fortunate turns that eluded Mussina during his down '07 campaign, when he was removed from the rotation in late August, his productivity hampered by injuries that he quietly attempted to pitch through. Mussina spoke often then about not knowing where the ball was going. Now, he can direct it.
"It's just fun again," Mussina said. "It was so frustrating last year; it was miserable. It's fun to be able to go out there and throw strikes and get some people out, and throw the ball where you want to throw it -- do what you want to do. None of that was happening last year.
"I hope I can maintain it for the rest of this year. You really don't know what will happen from year to year -- you really don't. You can get every break and have a great year, and the next year can be miserable."
Rays starter Matt Garza didn't enjoy the same type of success as Mussina, coming unhinged as he was charged with six runs in five-plus innings against home-plate umpire Brian Runge's strike zone -- which helped Mussina and was called "slightly amorphic" by Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon.
The Yankees went into the game looking for pitches up against Garza, and they found them, prompting the right-hander to return to the dugout screaming after New York's three-run fourth inning, and later admit that he had been "not intact."
The inning started with Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter legging out an infield single and stealing second base as shortstop Jason Bartlett couldn't handle the throw from catcher Shawn Riggans. Rodriguez worked a close full-count walk, and Jason Giambi cashed New York's first run with a sacrifice fly before Nady went deep to left, clipping the second catwalk and leaving Garza pounding his glove at the back of the mound.
"You just try to get a good pitch to hit and put a good swing on it," Nady said. "I've never been a guy to watch where it goes, but I could see that it bounced, and I didn't know if it was in play."
Two more unearned runs came across in the fifth, as Damon added an RBI triple, bringing around Robinson Cano, who had reached on Garza's two-base throwing error. Hideki Matsui tacked on a run-scoring single in the sixth before A-Rod homered off Jason Hammel in the eighth.
Cliff Floyd had an RBI single to account for Tampa Bay's offense until Gabe Gross and Riggins laced back-to-back doubles opening the seventh, chasing Mussina after 104 pitches.
Damaso Marte came on and allowed a run-scoring single to Akinori Iwamura, but he struck out the next two batters, and Joba Chamberlain -- activated from the disabled list earlier Tuesday -- recorded the final out to end the frame. Chamberlain said that his mechanics were somewhat out of whack, as he pitched 1 1/3 innings in his return, allowing a hit and a walk.
"My mechanics were kind of all over the place, but at the end of the day, there's a zero," Chamberlain said. "That's what a month does. It's just being in the situation. It's the first time I pitched with a lot of adrenaline."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.