ST. PETERSBURG — The scene was set perfectly for Gabe Gross to become an unlikely hero for the second straight night.
The defensive-minded rightfielder, who hit the winning single off unflappable closer Mariano Rivera in Tuesday's 11th inning, found himself batting with two on and one out in the seventh, his team trailing by a run.
Throughout their improbable rise to first in the AL East, the Rays had always found a way to overcome, to persevere. They never felt out of a game, no matter if it was the Yankees.
But Gross' sharp liner up the middle was snagged by a perfectly positioned Derek Jeter, who doubled off Cliff Floyd at second to end the Rays' final threat in a 2-1 loss Wednesday in front of 20,936 at Tropicana Field.
Though the loss snapped the Rays' six-game winning streak (and 11 straight at home), they didn't fall out of first place thanks to an afternoon loss by the Red Sox.
And, in yet another sign of progress, the Rays (23-17) took this loss harder than they would have in previous years, when, as manager Joe Maddon has said, Tampa Bay would win two straight and get complacent. And after taking two of the first three against the Yankees (20-21), the Rays can still win their sixth series in their past seven tries.
"It's been a nice run," Maddon said. "It's one game. Expectations are high, I'm glad everyone's upset."
Jeter's play in the seventh was symbolic, and fitting, as the Rays were finally beaten at their own game. Strong pitching and stingy defense had carried the longtime division doormats to the top, and Wednesday night, it was the Yankees' turn.
Coincidentally or not, the copycat move came the same day comments appeared in New York papers that Hank Steinbrenner wanted his struggling club to play like the pesky Rays.
The Yankees sure pitched like them. Rays starter James Shields, coming off two straight home shutouts, was good. But Mike Mussina (61/3 innings, one run) was better, getting all his pitches over for strikes in baffling Tampa Bay hitters.
When the Rays did threaten, a defensive play shut them down.
In the second, Floyd tried to go from first to third on a Dioner Navarro single but was thrown out by centerfielder Melky Cabrera. In the fifth, Gross was rounding third as Jason Giambi made a nice diving stab of a Jason Bartlett grounder, tossing the ball to Mussina to end the threat.
"Our defense was great," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Stellar plays. Three out of four infielders were dirty, diving, making plays. It was good baseball."
The Yankees mustered just enough — Bobby Abreu's RBI double and Robinson Cano's RBI single — to beat Shields, who scattered six hits in seven innings, giving up just two runs in giving the Rays a chance to win. But Rivera, who has given up just one run this season, shut the door with a 1-2-3 ninth.
"It was one of those games where you just get outpitched," Shields said. "We've been on a pretty good streak, so I just wanted to keep us in the game as long as we can."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.