AP Sports Writer
POSTED: 11:29 a.m. HST, Sep 21, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 11:43 a.m. HST, Sep 21, 2011
NEW YORK >> The New York Yankees are going to the playoffs for the 16th time in 17 years.
Eduardo Nunez hit a tying home run in the eighth inning, Robinson Cano followed with a two-run double and the Yankees rallied past Tampa Bay 4-2 Wednesday, handing the Rays a damaging defeat in the opener of a day-night doubleheader.
Tampa Bay began the day trailing Boston by two games for the AL wild-card spot. The Rays saw All-Star James Shields lose a late lead in their bid to close in on the Red Sox, who hosted Baltimore at night.
Despite using a makeshift lineup, New York clinched no worse than a wild-card berth and lowered the magic number to two for its 12th AL East title in 16 seasons.
No wild celebration here: The Yankees exchanged handshakes as if it were just another win.
Two days after setting the career saves record, Mariano Rivera was given a standing ovation when he entered in the ninth. Rivera closed it out 1-2-3 for his 44th save this season and the 603rd of his career, two more than Trevor Hoffman's old mark.
With rain forecast for the evening, the Yankees' CC Sabathia (19-8) was to make his third try for his 20th win. Rookie Jeremy Hellickson (13-10) was to start for the Rays.
Alex Rodriguez hit an RBI double in the first, but that was all the Yankees got off Shields (15-12) until the eighth. Desmond Jennings put the Rays ahead 2-1 with a two-run homer in the second inning off emergency starter Hector Noesi.
Nunez then hooked an 82 mph pitch into the first row of the left-field seats leading off the eighth. Brett Gardner singled with one out, Derek Jeter walked, and that was it for Shields.
Left-hander J.P. Howell relieved and fell behind 3-1, and Cano lined an opposite-field drive into the gap in left-center. In the dugout, Shields briefly put a towel over his head, unable to watch.
Luis Ayala (2-2), the seventh Yankees pitcher, relieved with two on and two outs in the eighth and struck out his only two batters.
In a game with a spring training feel on one side, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Russell Martin were given the afternoon off from New York's starting lineup, Jorge Posada was at first base and the uniform numbers of the Yankees' opening battery totaled 135 — Noesi (64) and rookie catcher Austin Romine (71).
Shields dropped to 4-11 against the Yankees, allowing four runs and six hits in 7 1-3 innings with seven strikeouts. His 120 pitches were four shy of his season high.
Noesi was given the start because Phil Hughes has been bothered by a back spasm since Friday. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon was under the impression Tuesday night that Hughes' injury would cause Sabathia to start the opener, and suggested Yankees skipper Joe Girardi may have been engaged in a bit of gamesmanship.
"It had an odor of that," Maddon said. "I don't know if that's exactly what was going on. I'm OK with gamesmanship. I'm into gamesmanship. It's part of the dance, and I'm good with all that stuff."
Noesi, making his first big league start, allowed two runs and four hits in 2 2-3 innings, throwing 55 pitches.
NOTES: No team had clinched a playoff berth in a doubleheader opener since the 1999 Red Sox, who chose to wait until after the nightcap to celebrate. ... Rivera came in as part of a rare AL double switch, entering in Nick Swisher's batting spot, with Teixeira coming in at first. ... Swisher let go of the bat while swinging at strike three in the first inning, and the bat hit the side of Posada, who was standing 20 feet toward home plate from the on-deck circle. Posada, making his ninth appearance this year at first base, stayed in the game. ... Tampa's Ben Zobrist missed Tuesday night's game, a day after the birth of his daughter, Kruse. He made it back to pinch-hit in the eighth inning of Wednesday's opener and struck out.