NEW YORK — The night was draped in history, and the Rays had plenty to talk about after Thursday's 5-1 win over the Yankees.
Not Derek Jeter's milestone march to 3,000 hits, which is now two shy after his 1-for-5 night. This was of the more recent variety, and a much bigger deal to them, as Jeff Niemann looked to have regained his crisp 2010 pre-injury form.
"That's the Niemann we know," Rays infielder Sean Rodriguez said. "And that's the Niemann we know he's going to be."
Niemann did most of the work, allowing Jeter a first-pitch double and nothing else and giving up just six hits overall as he worked into eighth. And the Rays carried over Wednesday's offensive explosion in Minnesota, rapping 12 more hits.
Ben Zobrist sparked them from the leadoff spot in Johnny Damon's absence, going 3-for-3 and just missing a milestone of his own, a double shy of the cycle. B.J. Upton drove in three runs, including his team-leading 14th homer. And the Rays played some dazzling defense, highlighted by Rodriguez's diving stop at third to rob Jeter.
The focus was on the Yankees shortstop, but the Rays had other things in mind. The win was a big one, the opening of not just their four-game series at soldout Yankee Stadium, but a crucial All-Star break-spanning stretch of 11 games against the two teams they are chasing, the Yankees and the Red Sox. They improved to 49-39 and knocked the Yankees out of first, pulling within 3½ games of Boston.
"These next 10-11 … they're definitely big games," Niemann said. "And we all know that."
The Rays have been waiting, and hoping, for Niemann to rediscover the form he showed in the first four months of last season, when he was 10-3 with a 3.12 ERA. But he was shelved for three weeks with a shoulder strain and didn't come back nearly as strong, going 2-5, 9.82. He started this season poorly as well, 1-4, 5.74, then went on the DL for six weeks with a lower back strain. But he has won three of four, with a 2.82 ERA.
Thursday was his best outing, and it came as the Rays put another starter, Wade Davis, on the disabled list.
Niemann mixed an overpowering fastball and his killer curve. He was in command and control, moving the ball around. He pitched aggressively. He kept his pitch count under control.
"That was like the Jeff Niemann prior to the injury last year," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "First time I've said that. All those kinds of things he did today that he used to do prior to his injury — the first one — that's what I really liked."
Niemann said he felt the same way.
"That's huge," he said. "That's what we're trying to do; get back to where we were when we were having consistent success and hopefully roll that into the second half."
A key to the Rays' success has been scoring first, and Zobrist got them going with a leadoff triple, scoring on DH Evan Longoria's single, then homering in the third. When Upton hit a two-run homer in the fifth, the Rays had a 5-0 lead and the game in hand.
Jeter's bid for history wasn't much of a concern.
"It's about us playing our game properly, beating these guys and really shorting the lead going into the second half," Maddon said. "With all due respect, he's going to get it. This is more about what we're doing."