ST. PETERSBURG — Wade Davis couldn't have been more excited for Friday's game, what with all the buzz around him about Alex Rodriguez's pursuit of 600 home runs, the Trop sold out and the American League East lead in the balance, figuring it was a sample of what the postseason would be like.
And he couldn't have started any worse, the rookie right-hander yielding a single and a home run in his first six pitches against the Yankees.
On the mound, Davis, 24, acknowledged afterward, and certainly in more polite terms, "It was not a good feeling." In the dugout, manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey weren't sure what to think.
"I didn't know what was going to happen," Maddon said. "I thought he had good stuff. It's the first game of a series. It's a young man. It's a different moment for him. I was kind of curious where it was going to go. And I thought he responded, obviously, very well."
Well enough that the Rays ended the night celebrating a hard-fought 3-2 win.
Davis ended up working seven strong innings in what Maddon said was his career-best outing. Matt Joyce hit a three-run homer, and Carlos Peña capped the night with a sensational defensive play from his back, thrilling a vibrant — and mostly pro-Rays — Tropicana Field crowd of 36,973. Plus, they extended Rodriguez's quest at least another day, holding the Yankees slugger hitless in four at-bats with nothing close to a home run.
The Rays ran their winning streak to a season-high matching seven games and their latest run to 20 of 26 games, ended their freaky Friday losing streak at 11 and improved to 26 games over .500 at 64-38.
But the number of most interest? Probably the 1 that now stands between them and first place with a chance to pull even with the Yankees tonight as Matt Garza, coming off his no-hitter, faces Javier Vazquez.
"It was a big win," said Joyce, who crushed a 2-and-2 Phil Hughes fastball with two outs in the sixth.
When Davis gave up a leadoff single to Derek Jeter and a home run to Nick Swisher, it didn't look like it would end up that way. But Davis righted himself from there, allowing a single to Robinson Cano while striking out the side in the first then only one other hit — another Cano single in the sixth — and three walks.
"To shut them down after having given up a two-run homer in the first inning tells you a lot about his makeup and his stuff," Maddon said.
"It was a battle out there," Davis said. "I was definitely aggressive on every pitch. I didn't want to give them any chance to repeat what they did."
Maddon was impressed enough with the season-high 115-pitch effort to call it the best of Davis' 26 big-league starts, even better than his four-hit complete game shutout on Sept. 17 at Baltimore.
Davis improved to 9-9, the most wins among American League rookies, and lowered his ERA to 4.21. And after an 0-5, 6.32 stretch over six starts that raised questions over his future in the rotation (and top prospect Jeremy Hellickson's future at Triple-A Durham), Davis is 4-0, 2.22 over his past four starts.
He is pitching better, and he is pitching differently: throwing more four-seam fastballs, which he tends to throw more strikes with; using his curveball more, especially in fastball counts; and turning his changeup into more of a split-finger pitch.
"It's a big series in terms of a measuring stick," Hickey said. "And I think we measured up real nicely, especially him."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.