ST. PETERSBURG — Carlos Peña couldn't have picked a better time for his first homer of the season.
With the Yankees scoring two runs in the top of the fourth to take the lead, Peña answered in the bottom half with a two-run blast, ripping the momentum back from the defending world champions with one swing of the bat. The Rays scored three more runs in the inning to take the lead for good in a 9-3 win.
"That was huge," 2B Sean Rodriguez said. "Most say home runs are a rally killer. That was a rally starter. It got us going. And coming from him, he's the heart and soul of the team."
Peña hadn't homered since Sept. 1, his season cut short six days later when he got hit by a CC Sabathia pitch that broke two fingers in his left hand. (Peña is not scheduled to be in the starting lineup today against Sabathia.) But the Rays first baseman feels like he has carried over the same solid approach he had at the plate at the end of last season, when he hit .333 in his final 19 games.
Peña also has more homers against the Yankees (15) since 2007 than any other player.
"I've got so much room for improvement," he said. "So I'm going to keep working at it."
tough texan: RHP Jeff Niemann was still stiff and sore one day after getting struck on the right shoulder by a line drive.
But Niemann said he has been encouraged by his progress and is still hopeful he'll make his next scheduled start, Tuesday in Baltimore. He plans to play catch today and push his between-starts bullpen session back to Sunday, when the Rays will have a better idea of whether he'll be able to go.
Niemann was pulled in the second inning Thursday after getting hit by a ball off Miguel Tejada's bat.
"It's hard to tell," manager Joe Maddon said. "He could feel great (today), or he could feel more sore. … We'll see."
J.P. UPDATE: LHP J.P. Howell threw Friday but gently as the ball was in a sock, the first step of his rehab from shoulder weakness. The reliever said he will play catch from 45 feet today.
Howell said he definitely felt stronger and in his opinion was "ahead of schedule." But he also figured it would still be mid to late May before he would be back.
"I want to throw normal. I want to get out there and chuck it," Howell said. "Then you can really know where you're at."
GLOVE LOVE: 3B Evan Longoria gets lots of stuff, but he'll be genuinely thrilled to receive his Gold Glove Award before today's game.
"It's a beautiful trophy," he said. "I'm excited to put it in my house. It's one of my favorites."
Longoria often talks about the value of defense in his overall game: "The hitting's not always going to be there, but if you focus on your defense, it should always be there."
His .970 fielding percentage (13 errors) was second among AL third baseman (Baltimore's Melvin Mora was .971), as were his 302 assists. He led all third basemen by starting 43 double plays.
WADIN' IN: Having watched the other four starters take their turns, Wade Davis is eager just to finally have the chance to pitch today.
Getting to do so against the Yankees and on national TV makes it even better.
"It should be fun," Davis said. "Definitely been champing at the bit to get out there."