"Our team has not quit," manager Joe Girardi said. "When you don't score runs, every team looks sluggish. There have been times we didn't score runs, but our team has continued to play."
The performance came one day after the two clubs split a doubleheader. The Yankees' offense remained dormant through most of the first game on Saturday, but showed some life in the ninth inning that carried through to the nightcap and into Sunday's series finale.
The Yankees (79-70) didn't waste any time in putting pressure on the Rays (88-59) to play catch-up. After back-to-back hits from Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter to light the initial spark, Jason Giambi worked a 12-pitch at-bat, fouling off fastballs and sliders to earn a walk and load the bases.
When Alex Rodriguez stepped to the plate, he jumped ahead to a 3-1 count before driving a fastball over the right-center-field wall for a grand slam. The blast gave him 34 home runs and pulled him within two of the American League lead. The four runs driven in also brought him to the century mark with 100 RBIs -- the 11th consecutive season he has achieved the feat. Those numbers come despite the third baseman missing the better part of a month early in the season because of a strained right quad.
"He has so much power, I'm not surprised," Girardi said. "Alex is an unbelievable talent, and he can change the complexion of a game with one swing every time he's up. That's the ability that Alex has."
The slam was one of three homers the Yankees used to power past the Rays. After Tampa Bay's Fernando Perez drew his team within one on a three-run shot of his own, Giambi sent a ball flying into the right-field upper deck in the second inning to drive in two that proved to be the difference-maker. The offensive onslaught sent Rays starter Edwin Jackson (11-11) to an early exit after just two innings.
But even after a grand slam and an upper-deck blast, the most significant home run came off the bat of Jeter in the fifth inning. Not normally known for his power, Jeter belted one over the right-center-field wall to give the New York captain his 1,269th hit at Yankee Stadium, tying Lou Gehrig's all-time record.
The crowd rose to its feet as Jeter rounded the bases. The cheers had increased as the weekend continued and he drew closer to the record. Sunday's game marked the third straight contest in which the shortstop connected on three hits.
"Sometimes when you're swinging the bat well, you get a lot of breaks, too," he said. "A lot of balls that I hit found some holes. More importantly, we won."
Tampa Bay continued to threaten throughout the game, but New York held on. Starter Carl Pavano (3-1) escaped a bases-loaded jam in the fourth inning and limited the Rays to four runs -- three earned -- in 5 1/3 innings. Pavano left the game after landing awkwardly on a pitch to Eric Hinske. He felt stiffness in his left hip, but said after the game that he felt better and would not need testing. Girardi said his starter wanted to stay on the mound, but the manager decided to be conservative to avoid any risks.
"To be out there and try to push myself, my pitch count got up," Pavano said. "I labored a bit that inning. Joe made the decision not to take any chances, and I can't fault him for that. We had a lead and we have a strong bullpen, too, so we're not afraid to use them.
"I'm at a spot now where I'm starting to wake up muscles I haven't used in a while. Every time I go out there, it's more innings than the last time and more pitches than the last time."
The bullpen got off to a shaky start as reliever Edwar Ramirez issued a walk and Damaso Marte walked in a run. But center fielder Brett Gardner made the first of two diving catches in the sixth inning to limit the damage.
"He's been playing well," Jeter said. "He can cover a lot of ground in the outfield, and he made some great catches when we needed them at big points in the game. He's been playing hard in every opportunity he's gotten."
Gardner's catches might normally be candidates for any highlight reel, but they took a backseat to Jeter's historic hit and the absence of another New York player for most of the game. When Cliff Floyd knocked a grounder in the fourth inning, Giambi stretched to reach it, but the ball deflected off his glove. Second baseman Robinson Cano had taken a step in the wrong direction once the ball changed course, but he made no attempt at retrieving the ball, and Floyd sprinted for second base.
"I wasn't happy with the effort after the ground ball," Girardi said. "That's a ball that you have to hustle after."
Consequently, Cano was taken out of the game and watched his team's victory from the dugout.
"That's embarrassing," Cano said. "I know I'm not going to be perfect all the time, but sometimes when the team needs you and you don't do your job, it's kind of frustrating."
Closer Mariano Rivera said he's sure that kind of play won't happen again from Cano. Rivera had reason to celebrate after picking up his 35th save of the season Sunday. It gave him 478 career saves, tying him with Lee Smith for second place on baseball's all-time list.
But as the Yankees face an improbable battle to continue their streak of 14 consecutive postseason appearances, Rivera would trade his individual accomplishment if he could.
"I'd rather have the team tied for first place," he said.