ST. PETERSBURG — So many times over the past few months, the Rays have been the ones making the crucial late mistake that cost them a game.
Monday, they were happily — and, given the sound of their postgame celebration, noisily — on the other side, taking advantage of a rare error by Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira to score a much-needed 4-3 win in front of 21,742.
In reality, it was a ground ball hit by Elliot Johnson that bounced past Teixeira, allowing Brooks Conrad, who had just pinch-doubled in the tying run, to race home and put the Rays ahead to stay in the seventh. "I just missed it," Teixeira, a four-time Gold Glover, said of his first error of the season. "I don't know what happened. The ball obviously didn't do what I expected it to do."
But in theory, or at least Rays manager Joe Maddon's theory, it was the reward for perseverance and the beginning of a long-overdue evening out.
"The only way that happens is if you don't quit, if you don't give up, then it comes back to you," Maddon said. "The moment you start to say, 'Here we go again,' 'Woe is me,' victims' complex, then it just piles on. You can't permit that to happen. You've just got to keep fighting, keep trying to do the right thing, and eventually baseball rewards you."
The reward, at least temporarily, was a halt to their freefall in the American League East standings. The Rays won for only the fourth time in the past two weeks, improving to 42-38 as they reach the season's halfway point tonight, and moving back within 6½ games of the division-leading Yankees and out of fourth place, the latest into a season they'd been that low since the Devil Rays' days of 2007.
"That was a big win," said Conrad, who got to lead the raucous clubhouse celebration for the first time.
The Rays weren't devoid of mistakes, Hideki Matsui failing to catch a fly ball in what became a two-run Yankees first, starter Matt Moore making a couple of rookie mistakes that gave the Yankees a run without a hit in the seventh.
Nor injuries. Matsui left with what was called left hamstring tightness that is expected to keep him out at least a few days, and Maddon sported a splint on his right pinky after some aggressive handshakes aggravated an old college football injury.
But what was different was how the Rays came through when it mattered. Moore battled through seven innings to improve to 5-5. All-Star Fernando Rodney got his 23rd save. And they got some big hits.
B.J. Upton and Carlos Peña homered to get them back to even. After Sean Rodriguez drew a one-out walk in the seventh, Conrad, who was hitless in his previous 24 pinch-hit attempts ("I had no idea," Maddon said. "I'm glad you didn't tell me that before"), stepped in against David Robertson and double off the slanted wall in the rightfield corner.
Also, the other team making the mistake. Johnson's ball was not hit sharply but fortunately, as it looked like it might hit the base but skipped past Teixeira's glove, ruled an error by official scorer Bill Mathews.
"It's nice for us to get on the winning end, of course, but it was a much more difficult play than it looked," Johnson said. "We're going to take it any way we can get it."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]