ST. PETERSBURG — Throughout the Rays' run to the American League's best record, there has been an element of surprise.
An unexpected star would emerge with each confidence-building win: Nathan Haynes' extra-inning single against Boston. Gabe Gross knocking in a run off unflappable Mariano Rivera.
"You never know who's going to be the hero that day," backup catcher Shawn Riggans said.
Thursday, it was Riggans' turn.
The 27-year-old rookie, playing for the first time in 11 days, delivered with two hits, including a two-run homer, to help lift the Rays to a 5-2 win over the Yankees in front of 19,976 at Tropicana Field. The victory was the third in four days over the Yankees, who dropped to last in the East, and gave the Rays their sixth series win in their past seven.
Tampa Bay (24-17) is alone in first for a club-record third straight day with a one-game lead over Boston. And it left for a six-game trip with an unprecedented feeling of confidence and small chip on its shoulder. The players believe in themselves. They're just waiting for the rest of the baseball world to catch up.
"It's a great feeling. Don't get me wrong," ace Scott Kazmir said. "But you listen to ESPN. … They talk about some guys, 'Oh I don't even know their names. They're going to finish (with) less than 82 wins or whatnot.' That motivates us. That really motivates us.
"So it's like, 'Keep doubting us.' We knew what we can do."
Kazmir knows his best is still yet to come. The left-hander, starting less than 24 hours after the announcement of his lucrative contract extension, pitched six scoreless innings — giving up three hits — and hinted he's "on the verge" of correcting some mechanical tweaks he has struggled with since starting the season on the disabled list with a strained left elbow.
His fastball command wasn't quite there, and neither was his velocity as he continues to open up his body near the end of his delivery. But he didn't need to be perfect; not with the defense played behind him.
On the game's opening play, Evan Longoria robbed Johnny Damon by diving to his left and snagging a sharp grounder.
"If that ball goes through, the Yankees have an entirely different vibe about the game," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
"That ball is caught, and the momentum comes right back to us."
Akinori Iwamura, who has hit .382 in his past 11 games, helped keep the momentum with a leadoff homer off Ian Kennedy.
And Riggans helped break it open with his two-run homer in the fourth, a 411-foot blast.
Riggans hadn't played since what he labeled a mistake-filled game on May 4 in Boston. But instead of dwelling on what he called "one of my toughest days in baseball," Riggans showed growth and maturity. The calmer catcher culled confidence from "just being on this team."
"It feels like every game we go out there, you can see in everyone's eyes that we know we can win," Kazmir said. "We trust ourselves. We believe in ourselves. It's fun to be a Devil Ray."
Kazmir smiled and quickly corrected himself.
"Or a Ray, sorry."
Joe Smith can be reached at joe firstname.lastname@example.org
With interleague play starting today, it's worth noting the Rays have been slightly better against NL teams (74-104, .416) than AL teams (595-885, .402). Their year-by-year interleague record:
19985-11Braves, Expos, Marlins, Mets, Phillies
19994-14 Braves, Expos, Marlins, Mets, Phillies
20009-9Braves, Expos, Marlins, Mets, Phillies
200110-8Braves, Expos, Marlins, Mets, Phillies
20027-11Dodgers, Giants, Rockies, Marlins, Padres
20033-15Astros, Braves, Cubs, Marlins, Pirates, Reds
200415-3D'backs, Giants, Marlins, Padres, Rockies
20053-15Brewers, Cardinals, Marlins, Pirates, Reds
200611-7Braves, D'backs, Marlins, Nationals, Phillies
20077-11D'backs, Dodgers, Marlins, Padres, Rockies