The first time Tampa Bay won a division title two years ago, it was a surprise — especially to the people in Tampa Bay.
But this summer the Rays expected to win. Planned to win. Had to win.
"We've said from the beginning of spring training that we're putting a lot of emphasis on this year," said Gerry Hunsicker, the team's vice president for baseball operations. "In all likelihood this will be the last year for this particular group because of the pending free agency of some of our key players and the likelihood that we're not going to be able to keep this group together."
Friday, the Rays took another step toward assuring that group goes out a winner, vaulting over the Yankees and into the American League East lead by beating Seattle, 5-3, while New York was losing to Boston, 10-8.
Willy Aybar snapped a 2-2 tie with a run-scoring single in Tampa's three-run fifth inning and Rafael Soriano got the final three outs for his team-record 44th save in the Rays' win while Boston pounded Andy Pettitte for seven runs and 10 hits in 31/3 innings, overcoming a season-high six home runs for the Yankees.
Alex Rodriguez had two of those homers, moving him past Sammy Sosa and into sixth place on the career list with 610.
This is the third time Tampa has led the division this month — each time by a half game. And on the two previous occasions, they stayed in first for just a day. This time Tampa's visit to the penthouse might last a bit longer since Friday's win was the Rays' third straight while the Yankees have lost 12 of their last 18, blowing a 21/2-game edge in the division race. The Yankees are comfortable leaders in the AL wild-card race, however.
There were some changes at the top in the National League on Friday as well with San Diego taking sole possession of first in the wild-card race by scoring twice in the seventh inning to beat Cincinnati, 4-3, while struggling Atlanta was losing its fourth in a row, falling 8-3 to Washington to drop a half game off the pace.
But San Francisco maintained its half-game advantage over the Padres in the West Division race with Tim Lincecum holding the Rockies to two hits over eight innings in a 2-1 win.
It was the 18th consecutive game in which the Giants held their opponents to three runs or fewer, the longest such streak since 1917.
Fading Colorado, losers of five straight, dropped 41/2 games back in the division race.
Baxter reported from Los Angeles.