NEW YORK — The Rays have won games in different ways en route to baseball's best record, from walkoff safety-squeeze bunts to sizzling starting pitching to go-ahead sacrifice flies.
But rarely has the long ball played a big role.
That changed in a big way Thursday, as Tampa Bay racked up a season-high four homers in an 8-6 win over the Yankees, completing an impressive two-game sweep and increasing its AL East lead to five games.
And while it was the Rays' first multihomer game since April 28, it was who hit them that could mean the most going forward.
Ben Zobrist picked up his first homer since October (spanning 159 at-bats), slumping Carlos Peña collected two, and B.J. Upton hit a solo shot to the opposite field, a good sign he's coming together at the plate.
"It's just a matter of time," manager Joe Maddon said after his club won its sixth straight to improve its majors-best record to 30-11. "They all have a lot of power. … It's wonderful to see, but it's something you expect to see at some point."
While Maddon said the homers were nice, the win was "spearheaded" by right-hander James Shields.
Shields (5-1) had another strong — yet eventful — start, giving up four runs (three earned) over 71/3 innings.
The tipping point in the game came in the third inning, when Shields showed poise in getting out of a huge jam.
Derek Jeter and Brett Gardner had back-to-back bunts down the third-base line, with Shields and third baseman Evan Longoria miscommunicating on one, and Shields making an errant throw on another, scoring a run to tie the score at 3.
Maddon noted that on Shields' error, rightfielder Gabe Kapler made a heads-up play in being in position to back up the throw, possibly saving more runs. "That was incredibly large," Maddon said. "And often goes unnoticed."
From there, with runners on second and third with no outs, Shields retired Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano in order.
"It was a moment where you can really lose your composure, and all of a sudden, the other side can pile on," Maddon said. "But he was able to maintain it. That was a big moment."
"You can't really do anything about it, so you just have to keep battling, and that's what I did," Shields said.
He was given a three-run lead before his first pitch thanks to an RBI single by Carl Crawford and a two-run homer by Zobrist. Zobrist, who had yet to homer since hitting 27 in his breakout, All-Star season in 2009, said he has been patient, just taking his base hits (and bases). But he connected on a 3-and-1 pitch from Yankees starter Andy Pettitte (5-1), who entered the game having allowed one home run in his first seven starts.
Upton also came through with a homer in the fourth. After the Rays added two runs in the fifth, Peña hit solo homers in the sixth and eighth, breaking a streak of 17 straight games without one. He has an RBI in three straight games (after none since April 28).
"I feel good, I'm just trying to make sure I stay focused on the quality of the at-bats, rather than the result," he said.
The Yankees had a ninth-inning rally, scoring twice and bringing the tying run to the plate before Rafael Soriano picked up his 11th save in 11 tries.
The Rays left for Houston after handing the banged-up Yankees their fourth loss in five games and saying the sweep didn't send any message. But the defending world champs acknowledged the Rays will be a tough team to beat.
"Those guys are hot as a pistol right now," Rodriguez said. "Any mistakes we make on both sides, offensively and defensively, they make you pay."