ST. PETERSBURG — What made Tuesday's series opener with the Yankees so different was where the teams stood. For the first time in 20 September (or later) meetings over 11 seasons, the Rays were ahead in the standings and the Yankees were doing the chasing.
But that double-digit margin didn't look like much as the Yankees rolled to a 7-2 win before a Tropicana Field crowd of 21,629.
The Yankees looked more like the team they thought they'd be, hitting big homers, getting big outs and getting a big return from Joba Chamberlain to keep alive, at least for another day, their seemingly far-fetched dreams of extending their postseason appearance streak to 14.
And the Rays (84-52) looked like the team they hope they don't become, stumbling in the opening game of their rugged 19-game pennant-race run, with their AL East lead over Boston trimmed to four games. Matt Garza struggled with control of his pitches and emotions, the offense (with the Orioles no longer in town) was again spotty and they made mistakes on the bases (Eric Hinske running into a mess a third) and around the field.
"We messed up in a couple areas we had not been," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "There were some plays we typically make, we normally make, that we did not make. … We did not execute like we normally do tonight, and they did execute well."
A key to Garza's success has been keeping his emotions from becoming an issue, but there were signs of internal conflict Tuesday as he didn't record an out in the sixth.
Maddon said Garza "may have stepped outside what he's been doing a little bit," and Garza admitted there were some moments when he lost control and had to "step out and relax."
Umpire Brian Runge's work behind the plate was also an issue. Maddon noted, diplomatically, that Yankees starter Mike Mussina took advantage of a "liberal strike zone" that was "really wide" and "kinda amorphic." Garza said he "threw a lot of good pitches and for some reason they either knew the inside pitch wasn't going to get called or what; it was kind of disturbing, upsetting."
The Yankees won with a monstrous homer from Xavier Nady (off the C-ring catwalk above leftfield) and a monumental one by Alex Rodriguez, tying Mike Schmidt for 12th all-time at 548. Add in good pitching by Mussina and an impressive return by Chamberlain, in his first appearance after a month on the disabled list for shoulder concerns.
"I think they know that we're a good team," New York's Johnny Damon said. "We've known even before this year, they were a pretty good team, too. … You definitely have to tip your hat to what they've been able to accomplish so far. We'll see how they do down the stretch."
The Yankees (11 behind the Rays, seven off the wild-card lead) have a lot of ground to make up, but Maddon — whose team is 5-8 against them, the only AL East team against whom they have a losing record — isn't counting them out.
"Believe me, they are the Yankees," he said. "And they are very talented, and they beat us again."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.