By George A. King lll
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — They remain extreme long shots to catch the Orioles in the AL East and have two clubs to pass for the second wild-card ticket.
Yet, by beating the Rays, 4-2, Sunday in front of 28,812 at Tropicana Field, they’ve won two in a row after losing five straight as they enter a crucial six-game homestand that commences Tuesday night against the fetid Astros followed by the inept White Sox.
“It’s better than losing the last seven. We won two and hopefully we win five or six at home and keep rolling,’’ said Brett Gardner, whose two-run, two-out single in the fifth erased a 1-0 deficit. “There is a lot of season left, but we have to play well. Offensively, we have been disappointing. Hopefully we do well at home this week.’’
The victory enabled the Yankees to remain seven lengths back of the AL East-leading Orioles and put them 3 ½ games behind the Mariners in the chase for the second wild-card spot.
David Robertson, who recorded the final three outs to post his 33rd save in 35 chances, doesn’t put much stock in the Astros and White Sox being under .500.
“It doesn’t matter what the records are, you have to take every team seriously,’’ said Roberts, who is 21-for-21 in save chances since June 5, the longest active streak in the majors. “Grind out a win no matter how you do it.’’
Second baseman Martin Prado contributed three solid defensive plays and third baseman Chase Headley took away an extra-base hit from James Loney to end the fourth.
By now it’s very clear if the Yankees are going to win, the arms will carry them because the bats look like they have been bathed in liquid Quaaludes.
In the last seven games, the Yankees have scored 11 runs and been blanked twice; the four runs Sunday was the most they had scored in that stretch.
Working with two extra days’ rest because of a rainout and an off day on the schedule, Hiroki Kuroda was sharp in a 6 ²/₃-inning outing in which he allowed two runs and four hits to improve to 8-8.
“His split was real good, his slider was outstanding and the fastball command was good,’’ Joe Girardi said of Kuroda, who hadn’t won since July 25 and was 2-4 with a 6.07 ERA in seven career starts against the Rays.
Kuroda, 39, would be agreeable to extra rest if that’s what the Yankees opt for down the stretch.
“Obviously, that’s for the team to decide. For me, whenever I get a turn to pitch I want to win,’’ said Kuroda, who gave up a run in the first and retired 17 straight batters from the second out of the first to the final out in the sixth.
In his sixth start of the season, Jeremy Hellickson held the Yankees hitless until there were two outs in the fifth. After walking Stephen Drew on a 3-2 pitch, Hellickson watched the no-hitter vanish when Prado, the No. 9 hitter, laced a double into the left-field corner.
Gardner followed by scorching a ground single to center that put the Yankees up 2-1. Jacoby Ellsbury, who was hitless in his previous 17 at-bats, made it 3-1 with a single to left after Derek Jeter singled. After the Rays scored a run in the seventh, Mark Teixeira hit his 20th homer in the eighth to get it back to a two-run lead.
Shawn Kelley stranded two runners in the seventh after the Rays had pulled within a run, Dellin Betances worked the eighth and Robertson was perfect in the ninth thanks to a running catch on the warning track by defensive replacement Ichiro Suzuki for the second out.
“It’s not what we wanted, but it’s better than it looked Friday night, that’s for sure,’’ Girardi said of the 2-3 road trip. “Hopefully this carries over and we get back on another good roll when we get back home.’’