NEW YORK — Only two weeks ago the Yankees were one loss from their worst start to a season in more than 25 years, so forgive manager Joe Girardi if he sounded blase about his ballclub taking over first place in the AL East.
Brian McCann hit a tiebreaking home run and Adam Warren pitched effectively into the sixth inning as New York ended the Tampa Bay Rays' five-game winning streak with a 4-1 victory Monday night.
"It's better than the alternative," Girardi said. "We're playing a lot better baseball than the first time we were here. That's a good thing."
New York (12-8) opened the season at Yankee Stadium with four losses in five games and finished that first homestand 2-4. But the Yankees turned things around on the road — including a sweep at Tampa Bay from April 17-19 — with a combination of improved defense, stellar bullpen work and Alex Rodriguez's bat.
Rodriguez went hitless in three at-bats Monday, failing to tie Willie Mays for fourth place on the career homer list at 660. A modest crowd on another chilly night in New York cheered each of his turns at the plate.
Playing third base for the second time this season, A-Rod popped up to first, grounded to third twice, once with the bases loaded, and was walked intentionally — eliciting boos from Yankees fans — when the count went to 3-0 in the seventh.
His teammates are eager to share the milestone moment, whenever it comes.
"It's an amazing accomplishment," McCann said.
Justin Wilson (1-0) pitched an inning for the win, and Andrew Miller earned his eighth save by finishing New York's ninth victory in 11 games.
The Rays' main concern after the game was off the field. Major League Baseball informed the team the status of its three-game series at Baltimore that begins Friday is up in the air. The Orioles game Monday night against the Chicago White Sox was postponed because of safety concerns after riots broke out near Camden Yards following the funeral of Freddie Gray.
"Obviously, Baltimore is an unknown for us," manager Kevin Cash said. "We're waiting to hear."
Evan Longoria's streak of getting a hit in seven straight at-bats ended with a strikeout in the first inning with runners on second and third and one out. The Rays had only three more hits against Warren in 5 2-3 innings.
The former reliever struck out six and walked none in his best outing. His wild pitch in the sixth helped Tampa Bay tie the score, though.
"It's still new to me in some ways," Warren said. "I'm just trying to learn as much as possible and learn on the fly."
Many Rays were wearing sweat shirts in the dugout and long sleeves under their uniforms in their first game played without the cover of a roof. Tampa Bay had played 12 games in its domed stadium and two series at ballparks with a retractable roof (Toronto and Miami) that was closed.
"It was nice to be outside even though it got cold there at the end," Cash said.
The Yankees took advantage of Nathan Karns' sudden loss of control in the fifth to load the bases on two walks and an infield single. Brandon Gomes (0-1) relieved and walked Brett Gardner to give New York the lead.
Gomes gave up McCann's second homer of the season in the sixth. Stephen Drew followed a double by slumping Carlos Beltran with an RBI double off Everett Teaford for a 3-1 advantage. Jacoby Ellsbury was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the eighth.
"It was the first time all year, including spring training and when I was down at Triple-A, that I felt I didn't throw the ball well," Gomes said.
Karns yielded a run and three hits in 4 2-3 innings. He struck out five.
Rays: OF Desmond Jennings was out of the lineup for a second straight day because of left knee soreness. He said this is not an injury that would require a stint on the disabled list. Cash said the Rays were being overly cautious. ... Cash said Alex Colome (pneumonia) should return this weekend.
Yankees: RHP Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) threw one inning of a simulated game in Florida and said he could pitch for the first time since reconstructive elbow surgery a year ago in an extended spring training game Saturday. "I'm happy with the progress I'm making," Nova said. "Every pitch was right where I wanted it."
Rays: RHP Jake Odorizzi is scheduled to make his fifth start of the season Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium. He has pitched into the seventh inning in all four previous outings. He lost to New York at home a week ago despite striking out nine.
Yankees: RHP Chase Whitley will be called up from Triple-A to make a spot start, giving Masahiro Tanaka five days of rest before his next outing Wednesday. Whitley is 2-0 with a 2.12 ERA in three starts at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
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