ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Baltimore isn’t the only team barreling in on the sputtering New York Yankees in the AL East. Tampa Bay is closing fast, too.
James Shields pitched eight strong innings to outlast CC Sabathia and light-hitting Chris Gimenez drove in two runs Monday as the Rays beat the Yankees 4-3, further tightening the division and fueling Tampa Bay’s bid to reach the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
The Yankees, who led by 10 games earlier this summer, had their edge cut to one game by Baltimore, which beat Toronto 4-0. The Rays moved within 2 1-2 games of New York.
“This is the start of September, and this is where you want to be,” Shields said. “In spring training, we always want to be in the playoff hunt, and now here we are again.”
Shields (13-8) and the Rays ruined the return of Alex Rodriguez. The slugger went 1 for 4 with a strikeout in his first game after being sidelined six weeks with a broken left hand.
Gimenez snapped a 3-all tie in the eighth with a two-out grounder that just made it to the outfield for a single off David Robertson (1-5).
Gimenez, recalled from the minors on Saturday and batting just .203 when the day began, also had a RBI single off Sabathia in the second.
“I would say that is probably one of the funnest things that’s happened. It was fun just to be up in that situation. It was a confidence booster, righty on the mound — being who it is — and he’s pretty darn good himself,” said the 29-year-old catcher, in his fourth major league season after stints with Cleveland and Seattle.
“Just getting a chance to go up there, hey, what’s the worst that can happen? I get out? OK, I’ve done that before in my life,” Gimenez added. “I told myself before I got in the box that this is definitely the biggest at-bat of your life, so you might as well do something fun.”
Fernando Rodney pitched the ninth for Tampa Bay, striking out Rodriguez and earning his 41st save by fanning pinch hitter Curtis Granderson with the tying run on third base. Granderson had been out since leaving Saturday’s game with tendinitis in his right hamstring.
“I just loved the way we played. I thought we were so up for that game from the first pitch,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who was ejected in the eighth, before Tampa Bay scored the go-ahead run.
“When we’re playing better teams, I think we play our better baseball,” Maddon added. “Everybody talks about the difficulty of the schedule the remaining part of the season, I kind of like it. Actually, I think it’s going to bring out the best of us.”
Sabathia allowed three runs and eight hits, struck out four and walked two in seven innings. He gave up a solo homer to B.J. Upton in the third and a walk, single and Evan Longoria’s RBI grounder that made it 3-3 in the fifth.
Robertson gave up a leadoff single to Jeff Keppinger in the eighth, and it didn’t look like it would wind up hurting the Yankees when Russell Martin threw out pinch runner Rich Thompson on a close play at second. Maddon trotted out of the dugout to protest the call and was ejected after an animated discussion with second base umpire Bob Davidson.
But Tampa Bay wasn’t finished. Ryan Roberts singled and stole second before Gimenez delivered his go-ahead hit on a grounder that just got past second baseman Robinson Cano.
Cano said he felt a twinge in his left hip when he reached for the ball. The All-Star who’s hitting .303 with 28 homers and 71 RBIs said he wasn’t sure if he’ll be able to play Tuesday night.
“I was trying to reach for ball. It’s a little tight,” Cano said.
Rodriguez had been out since breaking his left hand on July 24, when he was hit by a pitch by Seattle’s Felix Hernandez. Manager Joe Girardi plugged him into his customary cleanup spot as the designated hitter to bolster an offense missing the injured Mark Teixeira and Granderson, who have combined to hit 57 homers.
A-Rod said before the game that was not returning to “save the day” for the struggling Yankees, but rather to be “part of a winning team.”
Rodriguez popped up in his first at-bat before singling up the middle and scoring on Raul Ibanez’s triple in the fourth. Shields retired him on a grounder in the sixth inning, and Rodney struck him out to begin the ninth.
Hitless through three innings, the Yankees broke through for three runs in the fourth. Cano got them started with a double down the right-field line, A-Rod hit a squibber that eluded shortstop Elliot Johnson for his hit and Chavez followed with a sacrifice fly to trim Tampa Bay’s lead to 2-1.
Rodriguez scored from first when Ibanez hit to a liner to right field that skipped to the wall when Ben Francisco was unable to make a diving catch. Ibanez scored, putting the ahead 3-2, when Martin hit a grounder off Shields that pulled first baseman Jeff Keppinger far enough away from the bag that the hustling Yankees catcher was able to beat out his single by sliding into first to avoid a tag.
Shields, coming off a 1-0 loss to Texas in which he allowed three hits over seven innings, settled to retire 10 of the next 11 batters before walking Derek Jeter on a 10-pitch at-bat leading off the eighth.
The Yankees threatened in the ninth when Chavez reached on an error. Pinch runner Eduardo Nunez stole second before taking third when Ibanez grounded out.
New York has lost four of its past five days, however Jeter said there’s no cause for alarm.
“Who’s panicking? I’m not. You’re going to have highs and lows, but you’re still going to have confidence,” the Yankees captain said.
Said Sabathia: “We still have the lead. You just have to keep playing baseball.”
“It’s frustrating not being able to hold the lead. I’ve just got to be a lot better.”
NOTES: Olympic gold medalist Tiana Madison threw out the ceremonial first pitch. The Tampa resident was part of the United States’ women’s 4×100 relay team in London. … Teixeira missed his sixth consecutive with a left calf strain. He took batting practice Monday and could return by the end of the week. “The real test is going to come when he has to run,” Girardi said. “Can he make those bursts he has to make?”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.