Johnson homers twice as Rays take first
Tampa Bay overcomes phantom HBP call to down Yankees
ST. PETERSBURG -- Where Dan Johnson is concerned, there is no comparison to Roy Hobbs, according to Rays manager Joe Maddon.
"If Roy Hobbs is The Natural, then I guess [Johnson's] 'The Super-Natural,'" said Maddon, who was ejected in the seventh arguing a hit-by-pitch call on Derek Jeter. "Because the other thing was fiction, this is non-fiction. So for that reason, what he's done to this point is really phenomenal."
Johnson accounted for all the Rays' runs with a pair of two-run homers to create a 4-3 win over the Yankees on Wednesday night at Tropicana Field in front of 29,733.
By winning, the Rays (88-57) claimed the three-game series while moving back into first place by a half-game ahead of the second-place Yankees (88-58).
After hitting a two-run homer in the fifth, Johnson stepped to the plate with two outs in the seventh and Matt Joyce aboard. Johnson re-routed Phil Hughes' 3-2 pitch into the right-field stands to give Tampa Bay a 4-3 lead.
"What are you going to do?" Hughes said. "I tried to execute a pitch down and away on the second one, and it ran out over the plate."
Talk about handling the pressures of playing in a playoff atmosphere. Johnson already had the biggest home run in Rays history on his resume, which he hit against Boston in a 3-2 win on Sept. 9, 2008. This season, he again haunted the Red Sox with a walk-off home run on August 29, and now he's getting under the Yankees' skin. No doubt he's earned the right to be well hated throughout the Northeast.
"If I can cover all of [the cities] now, if I can somehow figure out Baltimore, figure out a way to get hated there, I don't know," Johnson said. "It means you're doing something right, so that's about the only thing I can say. It feels right, so it's bad and good, but as long as I'm doing something right, I can't complain about it."
Johnson's second blast gave the Rays the lead, but as the other two games of this three-game series have shown, no game is over until the final out. And a one-run lead against the Yankees with six outs to go is by no means safe.
Randy Choate was summoned to start the eighth to create a lefty vs. lefty situation against Robinson Cano. While establishing a new team record for appearances in a season with 76, Choate got Cano to do what he wanted by enticing him into hitting a soft ground ball. Unfortunately for Choate, Cano's placement turned the grounder into an infield hit.
Grant Balfour then took over, and the Aussie right-hander appeared to be back up to speed, a level he had been looking to find in his five previous outings since returning to the team from the disabled list on Sept. 1.
Balfour first struck out pinch-hitter Marcus Thames swinging. He issued a walk to Jorge Posada to put runners at first and second, but recovered nicely by striking out Austin Kearns looking and getting Colin Curtis to ground out to second to end the inning.
"I knew how big a game it was," said Balfour, who was needed in the eighth since Joaquin Benoit was not available. "I knew coming in there it was a tough situation. That whole lineup, one through nine, you can't take anyone lightly, so I knew I had to come in there and pound the zone.
"As a reliever in that situation, there's not really a whole lot of room for error or the game can change quickly. I try to come in there and just pound strikes. And it worked out tonight."
Rafael Soriano pitched the ninth, striking out Jeter and retiring Curtis Granderson on a groundout to put the Rays one out from a win. But the Yankees die hard. Mark Teixeira worked his way back from an 0-2 count for a walk to bring up Alex Rodriguez as the potential winning run. The Rays' closer faced the challenge and did not wilt, striking out Rodriguez to preserve the win and earn his 43rd save of the season, which tied Roberto Hernandez's single-season team record set in 1999.
Hughes held the Rays without a baserunner through four innings before Evan Longoria singled to lead off the fifth. One out later, Johnson hit his fourth home run of the season on a 3-2 pitch to give Tampa Bay a 2-1 lead.
James Shields made a strong return from a pair of less-than-stellar outings leading up to Wednesday night's start. The right-hander allowed one run on eight hits before leaving the game with one out in the seventh, giving way to Chad Qualls with a 2-1 lead.
"I had to go out there and be a bulldog," Shields said. "[I needed to] forget about what I did in the last couple of outings and come out here and fight for a win tonight."
Jeter became the first hitter to face Qualls, and he threw inside to the Yankees' captain. At first glance, the ball seemed to hit off Jeter's forearm. The ball rolled into fair play, the Rays retrieved the ball and tagged the base for what would have been the second out of the inning.
Maddon argued that the ball had hit the knob of the bat, and replays seemed to validate that fact. Nevertheless, Jeter was awarded first base, and after Maddon argued too strongly, he received his fifth ejection of the season from home-plate umpire Lance Barksdale. Granderson followed with his 18th home run of the season to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead.
"It's part of the game," Jeter said. "I've been hit before and they said I wasn't hit. My job is to get on base, and fortunately for us, it paid off at the time. I'm sure it would have been a bigger story if we would have won that game."
All of the contests in the three-game series were decided by one run, each of them feeling like an October game under Tropicana Field's Teflon roof.
"It's tiring, obviously emotionally tiring," Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said. "Those games were intense. This series was very intense for us. I'm just glad we were able to take two out of three. That makes it that much better, and I guess you're not as tired."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.