NEW YORK — Knowing he'd be making his first major-league start the next night, Rays rookie Matt Moore came out to Yankee Stadium early Wednesday morning and stood on the mound to get a sense of how it would feel and look.
Moore is a big believer in positive thinking, but he could not have envisioned his start going this well.
Moore was downright dazzling, striking out a Rays first-start record 11 in five shutout innings, and his teammates gave him a most unlikely welcoming present, scoring early and often in a 15-8 victory over the Yankees.
"He definitely lived up to the hype," outfielder Matt Joyce said.
Even better was the bottom line. The Rays (86-70) moved back within two games of the American League wild-card-leading Red Sox and a game ahead of the Angels in the race.
They head home for the final six games of the season, starting tonight against Toronto with David Price on the hill. The Red Sox are in New York for the weekend, and the Angels host the A's.
"It's a lot better than three (games) back, I know that," manager Joe Maddon said. "We're in that position where you have to win every game pretty much. There might be room for one hiccup, but we don't have much more room than that."
Moore, 22, earned his billing as one of the game's top prospects as he soared through the minors this season, going 12-3 with a 1.92 ERA and 210 strikeouts in 155 innings, and he was impressive in a pair of relief outings last week.
But this was his first start, and it was against the Yankees (though without half their regulars), and it was in Yankee Stadium, and it was in the middle of a pennant race.
And Moore — with his dad, brother and three other relatives in the stands — made it look easy.
He struck out Derek Jeter to start the game and fanned at least two in each of his innings, mixing his blazing upper 90s fastball with a curve and a changeup that left several hitters looking bad. He allowed four hits and walked one. Of Moore's 84 pitches, 59 were strikes, including 18 swings and misses.
"Jeter and (Andruw) Jones, they were like, 'Wow, that's some easy cheese,' " catcher John Jaso said. "They were impressed."
"The young man has good stuff," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Eleven strikeouts in five innings, I think we saw as high as 97 (mph), a 3-2 changeup. He's got outstanding stuff."
Moore, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, became the first pitcher to strike out 11 Yankees in five innings or less. The 11 strikeouts were the most by an American League pitcher in his first start since June 1999, when Tim Hudson had 11 in five innings for Oakland. Stephen Strasburg had 14 in seven in his June 2010 debut for Washington.
Moore said the key was keeping the same approach as he had in the minors, not getting too excited and, of course, envisioning positive things.
"Facing Jeter as the first hitter, my nerves for the most part seemed to be in check," Moore said. "And I could really feel comfortable."
That seemed to work for the Rays' hitters as well. After scoring four runs in losing the first three games of the series, they ran up the score from the start Thursday, building a 13-0 lead. B.J. Upton, Johnny Damon and Ben Zobrist — no doubt in honor of new daughter Kruse — homered, and each had three RBIs. By the middle innings, most of the starters were out of the game, which should help as well.
The "only negative," Maddon said, was the inability of relievers Dane De La Rosa and Alex Torres to close out the game. The Yankees cut their deficit to 15-8, getting two runs with the bases loaded in the eighth, forcing Maddon to go deeper into his bullpen than he would have liked.
But the night belonged to Moore, who ended up with a beer shower — "That was nice," he said. "And they were freezing." — to commemorate his first big-league win.
"A pretty incredibly good night for him," Maddon said.