ST. PETERSBURG — The hows and whys will matter more, but, at least for the moment, the Rays can enjoy the when and where.
After beating the Yankees 2-1 in 11 innings on Tuesday for their sixth straight win, and with the Red Sox losing, the Rays stood alone atop the AL East, with a league-best 23-16 record.
Magic number: 122.
"It's real nice to be on the top," said Jonny Gomes, who scored the winning run, setting off a raucous celebration on the field and in the stands. "That's a goal of ours to make it to the playoffs and it's in our sights, granted it's still early."
As they have during much of their run in compiling a major-league-best 15-5 record over the past three weeks, the Rays won with stellar pitching, strong defense and clutch hitting, with Gabe Gross singling in Gomes with the winning run.
They had seven shutout innings from Edwin Jackson and two outs to go for a 1-0 win when Troy Percival allowed a tying homer to Hideki Matsui. But they held the Yankees, with J.P. Howell again stepping up, then rallied, much as they did Thursday in Toronto, to win it in extra innings.
And they beat Yankees closer supreme Mariano Rivera in the process. Cliff Floyd led off the 11th with a single, pinch-runner Gomes swiped second on a failed hit-and-run and a poor throw from catcher Jose Molina, and Gross singled up the middle for the first run Rivera allowed all season.
"You're looking for growth moments," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "that's one right in front of your face tonight."
As much as the pitching, hitting and defense have been a part of the Rays success — they are seven games over .500 for the first time, have won 11 straight at home, have an intra-division best 17-11 record, are 4½ games ahead of the Yankees — so has confidence.
Percival swore he felt it as Matsui's ball was still rattling around the rightfield seats.
"I thought to myself, 'Bend but don't break,' because this team's got the heart to come back and do this, and I knew that," the 13-year veteran said. "It's early, but I do love the fact that the way we're doing it is by, I don't want to say outplaying everybody, but not giving in to anybody. …
"The way that we're fighting right now, it's something to look at and say this isn't a fluke what we're doing. We're a good team. We win close ballgames. Another team scores a bunch of runs we find a way to score more runs."
Jackson was dominant for the second time in five days, running his scoreless streak to 15 innings, and had nothing to show for it, as he was also the starter in the Toronto game.
"You feel terrible about it because he's a great kid," Percival said.
Jackson allowed only five hits and one walk, as impressive with how he pitched as what he did. "It's like he was throwing darts out there,'' Molina said.
The Rays gave Jackson a 1-0 lead in the fourth, when Eric Hinske singled in Carlos Pena off Yankees ace Chien-Ming Wang, and he survived several threats, helped by two more double plays.
Most severe was in the sixth when Derek Jeter tripled with one out, as Hinske made an ill-advised and poorly done dive for the sinking liner to right. But Jackson stranded Jeter, retiring Bobby Abreu on a groundout and Matsui on a popup.
When they won it in the 11th, the lively and larger crowd of 16,558 roared when the standings were flashed on the Trop scoreboard. And as much as Maddon tried to downplay the achievement — "I didn't realize that," he insisted at first — he acknowledged there was something significant about their standing.
"Of course there is based on our history and what we're doing right now," he said. "It's wonderful, it's great to be here, a big part of it is the confidence derived from it. Talk to our guys, they like this a lot. Obviously we all do."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.