NEW YORK — For the first half of Wednesday's two-plus hour third-inning rain delay, rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson sat around the clubhouse with the rest of the Rays, watching ESPN, telling stories, tapping on their iPads.
And then manager Joe Maddon came up and told him he was about to go to work.
"I walked up and said, 'You're in there,' and I think his pulse jumped maybe like one point or something," Maddon said. "It's like, "Okay, I got it." And then you watch him out there, chewing his gum, making his pitches, it's really neat to see a kid that inexperienced be able to handle such a moment as well as he does."
And rewarding too, as Hellickson led a team effort that led to a 7-2 win over the Yankees that seemed to resuscitate the Rays hopes of winning the AL East.
"It was nice to get out there and help the guys win and get back in this thing,'' Hellickson said.
The Rays' 90th victory moved them back to within 1½ games of the Yankees for the division lead as they seek to get a split of the four-game series in tonight's finale. (And it put them in good position to win a potential tiebreaker, as they lead the season series 9-8 and are ahead in the second tiebreaker, intra-division record.)
"We wanted to win tonight,'' Ben Zobrist said. "We had to win to stay right there with them.''
And the Yankees know they are there.
"The schedule favors them," DH Lance Berkman said. "Even if we win tonight and get it back to 2½, that's not insurmountable."
The Rays also maintained their 6½ game lead over the Red Sox in the wild-card race, reducing their "magic number" to clinch a playoff berth to five, making it possible they could celebrate as soon as Saturday at Tropicana Field.
"Every win from here on out is big," Carl Crawford said. "They're all big.''
The game ended after 12:30 a.m., the result of 2-hour, 11-minute delay in the bottom of the third due to rain, winds and storms.
"We just kept coming at them," Zobrist said. "It was just a matter of not wanting to go home yet. Even though it's 12 o'clock. We're not ready to give this game away just because it was late and we had a rain delay."
It was a true team effort as the Rays snapped a three-game losing streak, with leadoff man John Jaso sparking two rallies and Dan Johnson, Crawford and Evan Longoria homering to provide the bulk of the offense. "Pretty much permeated the whole group," Maddon said. "It was one of our better games in recent memory."
And after rookie Wade Davis' badly needed strong start was abbreviated due to the delay, five relievers stepped in and up, led by Hellickson, who worked 3⅓ to get the win, becoming the third Ray to start his career 4-0, joining Tim Corcoran and James Shields.
The victory had a personal tinge, too, as Hellickson's father, Steve, grew up a Yankees fan, so much so that when Hellickson got to Yankee Stadium on Monday he took and sent his dad a cell-phone photo of his locker.
"He used to be a Yankees fan," Hellickson said with a laugh.
Maddon has been harping on the need to get off to better starts and the Rays took a first-inning lead — the first time they'd been ahead since Saturday night. Jaso singled, went to second on Zobrist's walk, third on Crawford's groundout and scored on Longoria's sac fly, giving him 103 RBIs for the season.
About three hours later, the Rays made it 2-0 in the fifth when Jaso started another rally, walking with two outs and coming around on singles by Zobrist and Crawford.
The Yankees cut it to 2-1 when Berkman homered off Hellickson in the fifth, the Rays made it 3-1 when Johnson went deep to open the sixth, and the Yankees cut it back to 3-2 in the sixth when Alex Rodriguez singled in Derek Jeter.
But the Rays flexed more muscle in the seventh, as Crawford (his 16th) and Longoria (his 22nd) homered in a three-pitch span off ex-mate Chad Gaudin, the team's fifth back-to-back homers of the season.
The Rays added runs on a bases loaded walk by Zobrist in the eighth and a Reid Brignac single in the ninth.
Davis was sharp, retiring all eight Yankees he faced. "Wade Davis had great stuff,'' Maddon said. "It was unfortunate he did not get to pitch deeper into that game. I really liked a lot the way he was throwing the ball. And then Helly came in and really held serve.''
Davis threw 33 pitches, and the Rays decided the cutoff point for him to return was one hour. "It would have been nice to give it a go, but you can't really control what happens,'' Davis said. "It is what it is. We played a good game, Hellickson pitched great, the whole bullpen pitched great. You can't ask for much more than that. It was a good game.''