ST. PETERSBURG — When the final curtain came down after the third act of the remarkable drama playing out at Tropicana Field this week, there were plenty of accolades to go around.
Dan Johnson deserved something for another clutch performance. James Shields for his gutsy effort. Derek Jeter as the night's best actor, with a runnerup nod to Joe Maddon.
As for the Rays? How about best picture, as the standings after Wednesday's 4-3 win show them back atop the American League East.
By taking two of the three games in the series, the Rays (88-57) reclaimed a half-game lead with 17 to play and, going into today's final off day of the season, can enjoy the view from the top.
"We feel really good about being able to win this series," Carlos Peña said. "We never get too far ahead of ourselves, but I think we're entitled to enjoy this day off and the fact that we took this series. It wasn't easy. It was a lot of fun. It was very intense. And I'm glad we won one more game than they did."
They won another thriller Wednesday, before 29,733, because Johnson came up big and bigger, hitting one two-run homer to put them up 2-1 in the fifth, then after the Yankees responded following Jeter's theatrics, another in the seventh that provided the final margin.
"My goodness," Maddon said, "this guy does nothing but get big hits for us."
They won because Shields, coming off a pair of woeful starts, delivered the big game he needed to, battling into the seventh with only one run allowed.
"It was real big for me to be able to step up and pitch the way I did tonight," Shields said. "I had to go out there and be a bulldog, forget about what I did in the last couple outings and come out here and fight for a win."
They won because of the supporting cast in the field, where they made the usual handful of dazzling plays, and the bullpen which, after Chad Qualls allowed Curtis Granderson's two-run homer in the seventh, finished the job. Grant Balfour got three big outs and Rafael Soriano the final three, tying Roberto Hernandez's 11-year-old team record with his major league-leading 43rd save.
"The whole group was wonderful tonight," Maddon said.
And they won despite a grand acting job by Jeter, who admitted later that the Qualls pitch did indeed hit his bat. But the umpires ruled it a hit by pitch — a costly one as Granderson followed with his homer — and stuck with it despite an animated, extended and unsuccessful argument from Maddon, who was ejected.
"A great performance on his part," Maddon said.
Johnson would be cast as the unlikely hero given his part-time role, but he's making this a common event, delivering winning hits against the Red Sox twice last month (and that memorable one in 2008), then again Wednesday.
"It's something about the calm feeling that comes over me in those situations," Johnson said. "And once you've done it a couple times, you feel like you're going to do it every time. And I think that really helps you in that situation, where if you feel like you're going to do it, you're probably going to do it."
And what does it feel like coming around the bases?
"Oh, it feels real good," he said. "There's not words for that. It's just a great feeling all around, especially when you know it just put you ahead and the way your pitchers have been going it's probably enough to win the game."
Both teams take a much-needed breather today before the Yankees open a weekend series in Baltimore and the Rays host the Angels, then resume the battle with a four-game series starting Monday night at Yankee Stadium.
It will be hard to top what happened this week, as they played three consecutive one-run games, two going extra innings, with a tie or a one-run margin at the conclusion of 26 of the 30 innings.
"This is about as close to a playoff atmosphere as you can get without actually being in the playoffs," Johnson said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.