Walk-off over Yanks puts Rays in first

Walk-off over Yanks puts Rays in first

ST. PETERSBURG -- It might not have been Auburn-Alabama, but according to Gabe Gross, getting the game-winning hit off baseball's best closer is not bad.

In fact ...

"It's really good," said Gross, the former quarterback at Auburn, after driving home pinch-runner Jonny Gomes to give the Rays a 2-1 walk-off win over the Yankees in 11 innings on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field. "Wow. It's just big to win that game. ... Coming back in extra innings in the end -- that's a big win for us."

Gomes' run registered as the first surrendered by Mariano Rivera all season. Mob scenes behind home plate and at first base followed, where teammates swarmed over Gross and Gomes as a crowd of 16,558 cheered louder than their numbers. And for good reason, the Rays' win -- the team's sixth straight and 11th consecutive at home -- combined with the Red Sox's loss in Baltimore catapulted Tampa Bay back in to first place in the American League East for the second time this season. The team now finds itself in unchartered waters at 23-16, seven games over .500 for the first time in franchise history.

A reporter asked Gross if he knew the Rays had moved into first with the win.

"Actually, I've heard that a bunch since the game's been over," Gross said with a smile. "I know that. That's just awesome."

Yet while the Rays are enjoying their early-season run, they seemingly know how to temper their success.

"As good as that is [being in first place], it's about four and half months premature right now," Gross said. "We've got a long way to go right now, but it's good to be there now."

With the game tied at 1, Rivera stepped to the mound in the bottom of the 11th to start his second inning of work. Cliff Floyd promptly greeted him with a sharp single between first and second base. Having done his job, the gimpy-kneed veteran Floyd left the game for Gomes.

The barrel-chested outfielder Gomes stole two bases in Monday night's 7-1 win over the Yankees, and once again he found success on the bases by stealing second and putting himself in scoring position with no outs.

Gross understood the situation when he stepped to the plate.

Rivera is "the best, and has been for some time," Gross said. "All I was concentrating on was trying to get Jonny to third, hopefully squeak a ground ball through, sac fly or something like that."

Next thing Gross knew, he had hit a 1-1 sinking fastball into center field, sending Gomes scampering around third before spiking his helmet like a football at home like he'd scored a touchdown instead of the winning run.

Rivera's pitch "just got a little more of the plate than he wanted to," Gross said.

Gross did not realize the Rays had won until he had rounded first, then the celebration began, and he found himself on the bottom of the pile. Not to worry, Gross said, "I'll take a beating from teammates after a win any time."

The Rays had actually been two outs away from finishing off the Yankees in nine innings, when Troy Percival faced Hideki Matsui with one out in the ninth. Matsui has made a career hitting against the Rays. True to form, Matsui re-routed a 1-1 fastball from Tampa Bay's closer into the right-field stands for his 19th career home run against the Rays to tie the game at 1.

"I threw the pitch I wanted to throw, up and out over the plate," Percival said. "He was thinking along with me. ... There are probably three hitters in the league that hit that out."

Edwin Jackson started for the Rays, and for the second consecutive outing, did not get a decision despite not allowing a run.

Jackson pitched eight scoreless innings against the Blue Jays on Thursday night, but Percival surrendered three runs in the ninth to prevent Jackson from getting the win. On Tuesday night, Jackson posted seven scoreless innings, holding the Yankees to five hits and one walk while striking out five.

Jackson "is pitching way too good not to get a win out of this," Percival said.

All of the Rays' starters are doing well at this point, a fact personified in their composite 1.11 ERA over their past seven games. And the Rays have ridden that starting pitching right into first place, a destination as foreign to the Rays as fourth place is to the Yankees.

"It's definitely a change, but all the hard work we've been doing in the offseason and the spring [is paying off]," Gomes said. "Applaud [executive vice president of baseball operations] Andrew Friedman and [manager] Joe Maddon for running the best 25 guys they can out there. And it's showing."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.