ST. PETERSBURG There's something about Matt Moore and the New York Yankees.
Heck, there's something about the Yankees and Tropicana Field that seems to bring out the best in the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays' rookie lefthander made his big-league debut against New York last September and picked up the win with a standout performance. Monday night, Moore faced the Yankees for the first time since that initial outing and in spite of a most in auspicious start once again came up big.
After falling behind 2-0 in a four-hit first with a misplayed fly ball by rightfielder Hideki Matsui resulting in an RBI double he settled down to keep the AL East leaders in check through the seventh. And that performance helped Tampa Bay score a 4-3 comeback victory in a nationally televised ESPN contest its fourth straight triumph at home over New York and eighth in a row at the Trop overall.
"A tough first inning, awkward stuff happening, but he did not break," said manager Joe Maddon. "He didn't even bend. He was really good. I thought his fastball had great carry on it tonight. Good hook, good breaking ball also. It wasn't really a punch-out night for him but the stuff and the location was really good.
"It was more like a Rays kind of win, where everybody got involved and the conclusion was better."
And it certainly couldn't have come at a better time.
The Rays (42-38) were coming off a frustrating home series against the Detroit Tigers, losing three of four and falling 7.5 games behind the Yankees with their sixth loss in seven outings. Their bats had gone silent and their defense frequently let them down at the worst possible moments.
But this time it was different. The Rays' surprisingly shaky D of 2012 neck-and-neck with Baltimore for most errors in the AL turned three double-plays to foil Yankee threats while Gold Glove Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira wound up misplaying a hard-hit Elliot Johnson grounder that led to the game-winning run crossing the plate in the seventh.
And the Rays' lackluster offense awoke in the clutch with solo home runs by B.J. Upton in the fourth and Carlos Pena in the fifth, tying the score at 2-all and giving the Rays renewed hope.
That seemed to be short-lived when the moved back into the lead in the top of the seventh, turning a leadoff walk by Moore to catcher Chris Stewart into go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly by Curtis Granderson.
The way things have gone lately for the Rays including a 6-13 showing since leading the division on June 11 that might have been the death knell. Yet in the bottom of the seventh, the Rays' home-field mojo against the Yankees took hold once again.
Following a groundout by Ben Zobrist against reliever Cody Eppley, the Yankees sent in big lefthander Boone Logan. That prompted a little chess-game with Maddon, who pulled left-handed designated hitter Luke Scott in favor of righthander pinch-hitter Sean Rodriguez. Despite his .211 batting average, Rodriguez worked a good at bat and drew a walk.
He advanced to second on a wild pitch to catcher Jose Lobaton, who proceeded to pop out to short for the second out. Yankees manager Joe Girardi, not wanting to take any chances, then brought in standout shutdown man David Robertson to face switch-hitting Brooks Conrad. Batting for Will Rhymes, Conrad had been 0-for-24 in pinch-hit situations dating back to his last hit with Atlanta on Sept. 4, 2011.
But he worked the count to 3-2 and then lifted a shot that curled to the right-field corner and bounced off the wall for the game-tying double. Up stepped Johnson, who also pushed the count to 3-2 before smashing a shot down the first-base line. Teixeira normally turns those kind of grounders into routine outs, but this one rocketed beneath his glove and rolled all the way into the corner a three-base error that brought home Conrad for what proved to be the decisive run.
Both Maddon and Johnson speculated that Teixeira thought the ball would hit the base and braced accordingly, only to have the ball miss the bag and elude his mitt. But one of the game's best defensive first baseman was simply baffled.
"I take a lot of pride saving runs for our team, but I gave one back tonight," Teixeira said. "After it goes by, you go, What just happened?' I didn't even get leather on it. Usually you can knock it down or something when it takes a weird bounce. I tried to look at the video, but I couldn't even tell what happened. I don't know if it hit the back of the base or the chalk, or what. I still have to knock it down. That's the disappointing thing. We battled all night. We should still be playing right now if I make that play."
Once the Rays held the lead, Maddon turned to his bullpen to try to keep it. Joel Peralta had been victimized in his last two outings (one right before he began serving his eight-game pine-tar suspension and one after returning over the weekend). Peralta's first offering looked like a possible homer by Alex Rodriguez, but Zobrist caught the ball against the wall in right-center. And Peralta did the rest, inducing groundouts to the next two batters, dangerous-hitting Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher, to end the eighth.
The ninth showcased Fernando Rodney. One day after earning the first All-Star nod of his career, Rodney retired three straight pinch-hitters Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Dewayne Wise to notch his 23rd save of the season in 24 attempts. In so doing, he became the first pitcher with a sub-1.00 ERA (0.98) to have at least 20 saves on this date since the Yankees' Mariano Rivera (0.96, , 22) in 2008.
Moore is now 4-0 with a 3.29 ERA since the beginning of June, after a 1-5 start with a 4.76 ERA to start the season. He's worked at least six innings in six of his last seven starts. "I had a decent curveball going tonight," he said. "My change-up wasn't a huge factor. But I was able to locate my fastball to the inside part of the plate."
In addition Moore, the man of the hour was Rays' newcomer Conrad, who was at the center of his teammates' post-game, gauntlet-running, dance-party victory celebration in the clubhouse. In only his second week with the team, Conrad came through with his fifth double of the season all of which have come in his 11 games with Tampa Bay. In fact, six of his eight hits with the Rays have gone for extra bases.
"It was fun," he said. "It was a tough situation to be up there against a tough pitcher I've never faced. I got a couple of tips there from the hitting coach (Derek Shelton) and I knew he had a really good cutter. I jus wanted to do my best to be on-time and not be late and get the head out there so that the cutter wouldn't get in on my hands. It still did a little bit but I was able to get enough barrel on it to get it out there and get the run in."
It was a markedly better turn for the Rays than the first inning, when Derek Jeter led off with a double and scored from third when Matsui got turned around on Teixeira's high fly. Matsui also felt hamstring tightness during that inning and left the game for precautionary reasons. But afterwards, he told reporters through his interpreter that he felt much better and didn't expect to miss much action.
"Right now I feel like it has calmed down," he said. "So I think it just tightened up."
But in the end, amid a jubilant clubhouse celebration, the Rays couldn't have felt any looser for a change.