ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It may have been a matchup of a first-place team and one fighting for its postseason life, but everything about Sunday's game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays felt like a playoff game.
There was a pitcher's duel between the starters, Ivan Nova and Alex Cobb; some terrific play in the field, notably by Mark Reynolds at third for the Yankees and Ben Zobrist at second for the Rays. It was heavy on tension, low on scoring, and the teams needed 11 innings and nearly four hours to settle it.
And just to add to the October feel, Alex Rodriguez started the day on the bench.
What more could you ask?
If the Yankees can make up 3 1/2 games over the final 32 games of the season, they will squeak into the play-in game between the two wild-card teams, and the odds are better than good that their opponent would be the Rays, who are likely to end up either with the AL East title, or the first wild-card spot.
In that case, look out.
The Yankees have a terrible time beating the Rays and a worse time beating them at the Trop, but a matchup between the Joes, Girardi and Maddon, usually makes for some good managerial shenanigans.
On this day, Girardi got the better of it, stealing a run, and a win, in the 11th inning by choosing to send Alfonso Soriano from second to third on a day the catchers for both teams seemed able to shoot the eyeballs out of a housefly.
But Soriano, once one of the most formidable base stealers in the game, was able to sneak in ahead of Jose Molina's throw, despite not getting a great jump, putting the go-ahead run 90 feet away with one out, where it was easy to get him home on a Curtis Granderson sacrifice fly.
Girardi admitted it was a risky call, and also that he was a little worried when Soriano, who had doubled into the left-field corner, broke slowly from second on Jamey Wright's first pitch to Granderson.
"I didn't think it was great," Girardi said of Soriano's jump. "I kinda went, 'Uh-oh.' But he’s a base stealer, he doesn't have fear, and he has an idea of what he’s doing."
But the manager made it clear that Soriano wasn't doing anything without his approval, and in fact, encouragement. "I turned him loose," Girardi said. "I'm giving him the green light because I want him to get to third. We're taking a chance, yeah, but we're trying to make it easier on Grandy."
That inning capped a game of managerial cat-and-mouse that began after both starters had left the game. Girardi had to use his eighth-inning man, David Robertson, for two innings for the first time since 2011 because the game was still tied in the ninth and there was no point going to Mariano Rivera. Maddon used his own closer, Fernando Rodney, in the top of the ninth, hoping to win it in the bottom of the inning, but was thwarted when Robertson threw a 1-2-3 inning at the Rays.
But Girardi's biggest gamble, outside of sending Soriano, was cobbling together a scoreless 10th inning out of Joba Chamberlain and Boone Logan, two of the more erratic performers in the Yankees' bullpen. Chamberlain lasted two hitters, striking out Yunel Escobar but inexplicably walking the weak-hitting Jose Molina on a 3-2 slider rather than challenging him with a fastball that was clocking in at 96 mph.
Girardi then went to Logan to face the left-handed hitting David DeJesus. Maddon countered with the right-handed hitting Jose Lobaton. Logan solved the problem by getting Lobaton to rap one right at Mark Reynolds -- who had an outstanding day at third base -- to start an inning-ending double play, the fourth one coaxed by Yankees pitching in the game.
Girardi acknowledged that he was trying to send a message to the speedy, shift-happy Rays by borrowing a page from Maddon's own hefty strategy binder. "You get into these tight games, you’re going to have to do some things," Girardi said. "We tried a few things, and it worked out."
Of course, none of it would have been possible without Robinson Cano's 24th home run of the season, a solo shot in the fourth that tied the game at 1, nor Cano's RBI double that scored Ichiro to give the Yankees a short-lived 2-1 lead, although Cano did manage to get himself thrown out by a good 10 yards trying to go from second to third.
"Just a bad read on his part," Girardi said.
The Yankees also survived a white-hot Evan Longoria, who completed a 6-for-13, three-home run, five-RBI weekend with a monstrous solo homer to tie the game in the bottom of the sixth.
Even A-Rod got into the act, giving the sellout crowd of 34,078 two reasons to boo -- first for his appearance as a pinch-hitter for Chris Stewart in the 10th inning, the second for his bloop single into center.
Girardi agreed that the game had a playoff vibe to it, and admitted that a sweep here would have struck a potentially devastating blow to his team's chances to play at least one game in October.
"Each day that ticks off, we got to make up more ground, and this is obviously one of the teams we’re chasing and this place has been a tough place for us to win," Girardi said. "But this group has been resilient. I've said it all year long. People have wrote us off a few times, and they find a way to bounce back, and that’s what we did today."