NEW YORK — The Rays kept convincing themselves that despite the emotional pregame tribute to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and legendary PA man Bob Sheppard, it was just another night at the ballpark.
And by the end of the long, steamy evening, they were right as another good James Shields start went bad, they failed to convert several prime scoring opportunities, B.J. Upton got picked off in another key situation and they lost a game they should have won, 5-4.
But on the other side of Yankee Stadium, there was a sense that the opener of the weekend series between MLB's top two teams was anything but a routine event.
The Yankees rallied in the sixth and eighth to tie then in the ninth, after what would have been absurd theater had Derek Jeter delivered, won it on Nick Swisher's two-out single off Lance Cormier.
"There was a lot of talk about the Yankees and the Rays and first and second place," Swisher said. "But put all that aside because it was Mr. Steinbrenner's day."
Aside from some slight disruptions to Shields' warmup, the Rays said the 15-minute tribute didn't have any effect as they fell three games off the AL East lead at 54-35 but acknowledged the emotions seemed to carry the Yankees.
"I'm sure they felt it a little bit," Upton said.
The Yankees won the game in the ninth when Curtis Granderson led off with a single, moved up on a bunt and after Jeter — set up to star after speaking so eloquently and emotionally during the tribute — was struck out by Dan Wheeler, scored on Swisher's lined single, just ahead of the throw by Gabe Kapler, who was only in rightfield because Sean Rodriguez missed the game.
But the Rays allowed it to get that far by wasting their own chances.
Start with Shields, who after eight losses in his previous nine starts gave the Rays a strong outing and a chance to beat Yankees ace CC Sabathia — who had won eight straight.
At least for the first 52/3 innings and 22 batters. But with a 3-1 lead and one out to go to complete his night, Shields made the kind of mistakes that have marred his season. A 1-and-2 cutter that stayed over the plate became a Robinson Cano homer. And after not getting a 2-and-0 pitch to Jorge Posada, his next one, a fastball, landed in the rightfield seats as the Yankees pulled even.
"I just think there's some times he might try a little too hard," manager Joe Maddon said.
"It's a shame we lost that game," Shields said.
Twice, the Rays had the bases loaded with no outs and the middle of their order up, and neither time did they get even a hit. Instead, they retook the lead in the seventh on Ben Zobrist's groundout then gave it back when Joaquin Benoit allowed a leadoff homer in the eighth to Swisher (a product of Steinbrenner favorite Ohio State).
"Typically, we did not get the big hit as often as we need to," Maddon said.
And when's Upton's broken-bat single to start the ninth gave them yet another chance, he quickly gave it back by getting picked off, saying he believed Mariano Rivera balked.
The Yankees believed they had it all along.
"I thought the tribute was beautiful," manager Joe Girardi said. "The roses at home plate, the tribute to two great men. On a night that's very sad, The Boss would be proud. And I think Bob Sheppard would've loved to do the PA for this game."