ST. PETERSBURG -- On a night when the Rays got some clutch hitting, Tuesday's game against the Yankees boiled down to whether the pitching could get the job done once provided a lead.
Given the way their pitching has performed all season, the result was no surprise, as the Rays earned a 7-4 win at Tropicana Field with 26,453 watching.
The win improved the Rays' record to 43-38, pulling them within 5 1/2 games of the first-place Yankees in the American League East. David Price will have a chance to complete a sweep on Wednesday afternoon at 3:10 ET, facing rookie David Phelps.
"We were 7 1/2 back going in, and we're 5 1/2 back now," said James Shields, who started and picked up his eighth win of the season. "We still have a long season to go. It's nice to win these first two here, and we've got our man on the mound tomorrow, and hopefully we can get the sweep."
Entering the fourth inning, the Rays had already mounted a three-run charge to tie the game at 3, and they took a 5-4 lead an inning later, in the fourth, thanks to Sean Rodriguez's sixth home run of the season. The drive came in timely fashion off Yankees starter Ivan Nova, who has given the Rays fits in the past.
"To get the lead was great," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "To come back -- Nova has been so good against us. We have not played well against Nova, and he looked like he had that same thing going on. But finally, we had a breakthrough there with the three runs, and they happened to scratch one out.
"The home run really put it back in our court, and Shieldsy ran with it after that. ... But getting back on top and staying on top was big. I believe we have the pitching staff and bullpen to do that. Whenever we grab a lead late, we feel like we can win the game."
Shields scuffled in the early innings, but he went to the mound with a 5-4 lead to start the top of the fifth, which began with a Dewayne Wise single. At that point, one couldn't help but wonder if the lead would flip once again.
Derek Jeter sacrificed Wise to second before a Curtis Granderson groundout moved the potential tying run to third with Alex Rodriguez stepping to the plate. But Shields got Rodriguez to roll one over to shortstop to escape the inning after just 10 pitches.
The sixth inning brought even more tension when Robinson Cano led off with a single. One out later, Raul Ibanez doubled to right, and what followed looked like something right out of the Spalding Guide for how to play the game.
Right fielder Ben Zobrist threw a strike to the second baseman, Rodriguez, who made the relay to Jose Molina. The Rays catcher applied the tag for the second out. Ibanez moved to third on the play, but Shields retired Eric Chavez on a groundout to third to end the inning.
"[Molina's] tag was great," Maddon said. "J-Mo just dove in with the ball and glove, dove at the feet, makes the play. Out. That was a very big moment in tonight's game."
Rodriguez called the play "textbook."
"[Zobrist] obviously got over there quickly, got rid of it, got it to me quickly," Rodriguez said. "I just turned around and threw it to Josey. You're not really thinking about where the runner is at at that point. You're just basically trying to get it to home so that if he does ... try to score, the throw hopefully beats him there."
Shields pitched through the seventh, allowing four runs on 10 hits while striking out five and walking none.
"They got off to an early start and our hitters did a great job of coming back," Shields said. "I tried to keep us in the game as long as I could throughout the game to give us a chance to score there, and we did. Good to see."
Also critical to the win were the add-on runs the Rays' offense, delivered in clutch fashion in the seventh.
Desmond Jennings doubled to open the inning and moved to third on B.J. Upton's single to left. Upton then took off to steal second, and catcher Russell Martin's throw sailed into center field, allowing Jennings to score the Rays' sixth run with what was ruled a successful steal of home. Zobrist added a single to right that scored Upton to push the lead to 7-4.
Burke Badenhop and Joel Peralta combined to pitch a scoreless eighth, and Fernando Rodney retired the Yankees in order in the ninth to preserve the lead and pick up his 24th save of the season.
The Rays have now won nine straight over the Yankees at Tropicana Field.
"I don't want to say it's a tough place," Cano said. "We score a lot of runs here, but we've got to give credit to their team, too. They're pretty good at their place."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. Greg Zeck is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.