NEW YORK — When the Rays last visited New York, in late June, they were barely above .500 and at the bottom of the American League East standings.
A win in the June 23 series finale started them on what has been a remarkable run, and after a 10-6 win Friday night that was their 23rd in the 28 games since, they walked out of Yankee Stadium in first place.
"It's always good to validate what you had been doing," manager Joe Maddon said. "You get to that particular point, and you're there, and you want to stay there. There's no question. Now it's up to us. We have to continue to play the game properly."
The climb has been slow and stunning, as the Rays kept winning but had trouble gaining on the Red Sox, who had led since May 27. But the Rays took two of three in Boston this week — the scheduled fourth game, rained out Thursday, is rescheduled for Monday — and when the Sox lost Friday in Baltimore and the Rays won, the ascension was complete.
Now the Rays (61-42) just have to hang on for the final 59 games.
"Right now it feels good," pitcher Jeremy Hellickson said. "But we've got to keep winning."
They've done that pretty well, going 6-1 on this road trip, winning 16 of 18, 20 of 23 and 23 of 28. Since a 14-18 start, the Rays are a major-league-best 47-24 and overall on a pace for 96 wins.
Friday's victory wasn't as easy as it should been, though the Rays continued their mastery of Yankees lefty CC Sabathia (4-11 with a 4.47 ERA in his 22 starts against them in pinstripes) with a six-run second inning, and they held a 10-1 lead with five outs to go.
Hellickson made it uncomfortable working through six innings for his 10th win, and then it got downright uneasy as the Yankees rallied and Maddon had to use four pitchers in the ninth, including closer Fernando Rodney.
The Rays had several big hits: a three-run homer by James Loney, a two-run double by Evan Longoria, a two-out single by Sam Fuld and a bunt by Desmond Jennings.
Hellickson started well, and he flashed his Gold Glove skills, snagging a liner by Ichiro Suzuki that would have his hit jaw — "It was really close. I saw it off the bat, thank God." — and making four other plays. But it got messy in the third, when the Yankees scored their first run, and concerning in the fourth, when they got their first two batters on.
"I kind of lost everything there in that fourth inning," Hellickson said. "I was trying to basically throw it down the middle and keep it down, and I couldn't even do that. It just got away from me for a little bit."
There was more unnecessary stress later. Kyle Farnsworth got through the seventh, but Cesar Ramos gave up two runs in the eighth. After he got the first out of the ninth, Jamey Wright was supposed to finish it. Instead, he faced five batters without retiring any, and Maddon had to turn to Jake McGee and then Rodney.
"You don't want that kind of under-duress moment where you have a 10-1 lead and have to kind of sweat out the last out," Maddon said. "That's not cool."
But by the end of the long night, the Rays were quite pleased with where they were, though noting there was a long way to go. "It doesn't mean anything at this point to be in first place," Longoria said. "But it's better than being at the basement."