NEW YORK -- In one spot of the New York Yankees' clubhouse, starter Hiroki Kuroda was talking about how he was pitching better than even he expected this year.
In another, Russell Martin was relishing his big hit -- a three-run homer that helped the Yankees beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-4 Sunday -- in a season that's seen him have fewer hits than usual, big or otherwise.
At his corner locker, Alex Rodriguez was heaping praise on Eduardo Nunez, who had three stolen bases Sunday, and has given the Yankees' offense a much-needed boost, adding an element of "havoc," as Rodriguez said, they were lacking.
Overall, things were looking a lot brighter for the Yankees, who took two of three in a key series and have won six of their last nine.
The Yankees moved 1 1/2 games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East, pending the result of Baltimore's later game against the Oakland A's. Tampa Bay fell five games back of the Yankees in the East and 3 1/2 behind the Orioles for the second wild card.
"We talked about playing better baseball and we're starting to do that, and that's extremely important this time of year," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Especially with 16 games left, we have a one-game lead (heading into Sunday's action), you want to win your division. We have a day off, rest tomorrow, it's the last one of the year. And they'd better rest, because we've still got a grind left."
Rafael Soriano saw the tying run come to the plate after an error by Rodriguez in the ninth, but got Jeff Keppinger to hit into a game-ending double play for his 40th save of the season.
Rays starter Matt Moore (10-11) coughed up five runs on three hits in just three innings.
Ben Zobrist homered for the Rays, who head back to Florida for a seven-game home stand.
Along with losing five of six to the teams they're chasing in the AL East, the Rays had a couple of run-ins with home plate umpire Paul Emmel on Sunday. Manager Joe Maddon was ejected in the fifth inning while Matt Joyce got tossed after arguing a called third strike in the eighth.
Kuroda (14-10) came out looking dominant, recording his first six outs on strikeouts and finished with 10 in six innings. He eventually gave up four runs on four hits while walking two.
The pitcher, who has learned to adjust to American League hitters as the year's gone on, had a tougher time adjusting to the unusual strikeout total.
"To be honest with you, I really don't feel comfortable ... when I start to get a lot of strikeouts," Kuroda said through a translator. "I can get into, really, a better rhythm if I get a lot of ground balls."
While Kuroda dominated early, the Yankees gave him a big boost with a five-run third that Rodriguez called "the best offensive inning we've had all year."
Nunez started the inning with a walk and stole second before Derek Jeter singled him in for a 1-0 lead. Rodriguez later added a RBI single and then Martin blasted his 17th homer of the season to give New York a 5-0 lead.
When Moore, who walked three batters in the inning, threw a pitch high and tight to Curtis Granderson, following the homer, Emmel warned both benches.
Maddon disagreed with that decision and was ejected, as he got into a lengthy, animated argument with the ump.
"I'm just telling him that's not necessary," Maddon said of his conversation with Emmel. "You don't have to set any warnings. He's not throwing at anybody right there. All I just kept saying was that's not necessary and then I said 'You're wrong,' and he threw me out. So at that point, I had to make a few other points once I got out there."
Tampa Bay scored its first run in the fourth, on Zobrist's homer to right, but the Yankees countered in the bottom of the inning with Nunez again showing some speed on the bases. After he reached on an error, Nunez stole second and third and eventually scored on Rodriguez's sacrifice fly to make it 6-1.
Kuroda had mostly cruised, but the Rays sneaked back into the game with a three-run sixth. A two-run single by Evan Longoria that took a bad hop over Rodriguez's glove brought Tampa Bay within 6-3 and put runners at first and third with no one out.
But Kuroda got Joyce to hit into a double play, which scored a run to make it 6-4, but effectively killed the rally. Kuroda struck out B.J. Upton to end the inning.
"We took advantage of a bad hop and that was big," Maddon said. "The big play there was Matty's at-bat, because if Matt Joyce could really do something in that moment, that could really turn the game back in our favor. The double play takes the momentum away from us and puts it back in their dugout and that's unfortunate."
NOTES: Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte is scheduled to start Tuesday's game, his first appearance since he fractured his left ankle on June 27. Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Pettitte will be limited to about 70 pitches. Pettitte said his abbreviated season might cause him to consider pitching again next year after initially thinking he would come out of retirement to pitch only this season. ... Rays right fielder Sam Fuld left the game in the middle of the fifth with a mild right hamstring strain, an injury he sustained running out a grounder to end Tampa Bay's side of the fifth. ... Maddon's ejection was his fourth of the season.
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