ST. PETERSBURG — The night began with the distribution of the sparkling American League championship rings. But between the circles on the scoreboard and the empty feeling of the 7-2 loss, it rang hollow for the Rays.
Yankees starter A.J. Burnett held them without a hit for the first six innings, offsetting a solid start by Matt Garza. And when the Rays finally broke through to tie it at 2 in the seventh, the Yankees rallied right back off reliever J.P. Howell, then piled on in the ninth off Dan Wheeler.
"Very disappointing,'' Howell said. "But to be honest, I'm glad that ceremony's over and we can get in a rhythm and do '09 — '08's great, but we need to get on '09.''
Burnett, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract but was the junior partner added to the New York rotation, shut the Rays down for the first six innings, allowing only a second-inning walk, as the Yanks took a 2-0 lead.
"Obviously to take a no-hitter into the seventh, you're doing something right," Rays slugger Evan Longoria said. "It was one of those nights where he established his fastball early and he was on the corners with it. A guy throwing 105 can't get you out if it's over the middle of the plate, but he's throwing 95 on the corners, that makes it pretty darn tough. And then he's got the hook to go along with it, and he was able to throw that for a strike also, which made it very difficult."
The Rays broke up the no-hitter then broke through in the seventh. Carl Crawford fouled off five pitches and dumped a single to left, and Longoria ripped the next pitch for another. Carlos Peña made it three straight, his single to right scoring Crawford and sending Longoria to third, and Pat Burrell followed with a sac fly, but that was about it.
After Dioner Navarro struck out, Peña got caught getting back to first late by catcher Jose Molina and was picked off, a play the former Angel is known for and that the Rays covered extensively in their pre-series scouting reports.
The Yankees took the lead right back off Howell, who hung a curve that lefty swinging leadoff man Brett Gardner laced over the head of Crawford, who, as instructed, was playing a shallow left. Derek Jeter's soft full-count single moved Gardner to third, and he scored on Mark Teixeira's sac fly to put the Yanks ahead to stay. The Yanks added four in the ninth, Gardner hitting a ball over B.J. Upton's head in center to score one and Jeter following with a three-run homer.
Garza pitched well, just not as well as Burnett, who'd thrown a no-hitter in 2001 and had another in mind Tuesday: "You can't help thinking about it.''
Garza overcame a bad start, loading the bases on two singles — "a couple of cheap hits" — and a walk, then just about pitched his way out of it, allowing only a sac fly. His only other mistake was a 2-and-2 fastball he left over the plate to Nick Swisher (a pretty good hitting pitcher!) that ended up over the rightfield fence.
"Just try to outlast the other guy," Garza said. "Shoot, he had his stuff tonight, spotting 94-95 on the black. My job was just to keep it close, keep us in the game. I went seven, gave up two. And he went (six) and gave up none. I'm looking at the scoreboard going, 'Wow, what a night to have your good stuff, huh?' "
It was that kind of night.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]