ST. PETERSBURG — While the Rays defense hasn't been as consistently sharp as it was a year ago, it was nearly flawless Tuesday night.
There were the usual suspects, from LF Carl Crawford sprinting toward the foul line for a great catch in the fourth and SS Jason Bartlett ending the inning with a dazzling forceout at second, racing deep into the hole to shallow left before twisting and throwing out Jorge Posada.
CF B.J. Upton and RF Gabe Kapler made nice catches, and RHP Grant Balfour started a 1-6-3 double play in the eighth, capping one of the Rays' best defensive games of the year.
"Their defense played really well tonight and kept us from putting an inning together," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
The Rays rode pitching and defense to the World Series last season, and while most of the same personnel remain, the results haven't been up to their high standards: They rank 10th in the AL in fielding percentage at .983. But nights like Tuesday are reminders they are more than capable.
"I would have thought we would have played at a higher level than we have to this point," manager Joe Maddon said. "But now we still have two months to really show how good we are on defense, and if we do that, it's going to make a huge difference by the end of the season."
GETTING CLOSE: Backup C Shawn Riggans is nearing a return after more than three months on the disabled list.
Riggans, on the DL with right shoulder tendinitis, has fared well in his rehab assignment in Port Charlotte, hitting .256 (10-for-39) and, according to Maddon, throwing well from behind the plate.
Maddon said when Riggans was placed on the DL, they were thinking he could return in early August, and that might be on target as his 20-day assignment is scheduled to run out Aug. 5.
In Riggans' absence, Michel Hernandez has hit safely in 12 of his past 16 starts.
"It's somewhat of a tough decision," Maddon said. "Michel has done a good job; behind the plate he's done a real good job, and I think he's had some big hits for us. He fits in really well with the group. But also Riggo was a big part of what we did last year."
STEPPING IN: Yankees OF Eric Hinske, a Ray in 2008, said he has enjoyed being part of another AL East race with New York, which acquired him June 30 in a trade with the Pirates.
Hinske, who found himself signing several Rays-related items by the visitors' dugout Tuesday, has fit in well in pinstripes and hopes to play in October for the third straight year (he won a World Series ring with the Red Sox in 2007).
"It's been great so far," he said. "I missed it when I was in the National League, we weren't winning much, I just missed it, missed the everyday grind of the East, the close games, the packed houses. So it's definitely good to be back."
Hinske has come through off the bench for the Yankees, with six hits (and four homers) in 18 at-bats.
The good news for Hinske includes off the field. He and his wife, Kathryn, are expecting their second child on Valentine's Day.
AKI UPDATE: 2B Akinori Iwamura fielded ground balls Tuesday for the first time since injuring his left knee May 25, with Maddon liking the comfort level and fluidity in the drills. Iwamura, rehabbing from knee surgery, took 20 grounders, making short throws to first base, and will do the same today before being re-evaluated.
"He looked good," Maddon said. "He had no problem with regard to bending or moving side to side. I was watching him finishing his throw, there was no hesitation with that."
Maddon has said it will likely be mid August before the Rays decide on a minor-league rehab assignment for Iwamura.
MISCELLANY: Saturday's game, which will feature a postgame concert by Daughtry, is sold out. … RHP Andy Sonnanstine started Tuesday for Triple-A Durham, giving up two runs in eight innings against Scranton. … Tuesday's broadcast auction raised $42,800 to benefit the Rays Baseball Foundation.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.