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Yankees move closer to AL East title

9/19/2003

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) -- Jose Contreras is beginning to look
like a pretty good investment for the New York Yankees.

The Cuban defector, who's struggled at times since signing a $32
million, four-year contract last winter, pitched seven solid
innings Friday night as the Yankees beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays
2-1 to move within one victory of clinching a playoff berth.

The AL East leaders won for the 11th time in 13 games and
reduced the magic number for clinching their sixth straight
division title to five.

"I feel good now. I feel comfortable on the mound. I'm able to
pitch my game. I'm not thinking about any other thing. I'm just
focused on the game," Contreras said through an interpreter.

Contreras (6-2) allowed four hits, struck out four and walked
one to improve to 5-1 in eight starts. Tampa Bay's only run scored
in the sixth on Rocco Baldelli's groundout.

Jeff Nelson and Gabe White pitched the eighth for the Yankees.

Mariano Rivera worked the ninth for his 39th save in 45
opportunities. He has pitched 13 1-3 scoreless innings over his
last 12 appearances.

Contreras started the season in the bullpen, but was demoted to
the minors so he would have more opportunities to pitch. He spent
more than two months on the disabled list with a right shoulder
strain and rejoined the Yankees as a starter on Aug. 24.

"I think he's going to be useful to us," said Yankees manager
Joe Torre, who may send Contreras back to the bullpen for the
postseason.

"I'm pretty excited about tonight. He just mixed everything and
threw a lot of strikes," he said. "The quality of his stuff is
not in question. The only thing that can hurt him is wildness."

With one more win, the Yankees (95-58) would assure themselves
of at least the AL wild-card spot.

Alfonso Soriano tied a major league record with his 12th leadoff
homer of the season and Aaron Boone had a RBI double for the
Yankees, who maintained their five-game lead over Boston in the AL
East.

Soriano hit his 33rd homer, connecting against Doug Waechter
(3-1) on the third pitch of the game. Soriano matched the
single-season mark for leadoff homers set by Baltimore's Brady
Anderson in 1996.

It was the 20th leadoff homer of Soriano's career and extended
New York's major league mark for leadoff homers in a season to 14.

"I never thought I would tie with Brady Anderson," Soriano
said.

Soriano has homered four times and driven seven runs in his last
five games. He also hit a leadoff homer against Baltimore on Monday
and has three of them off Tampa Bay pitching this season.

The Yankees added a run in the second on Boone's RBI's double.

Waechter settled in after that. He gave up three singles to open
the fifth, but Karim Garcia was thrown out trying to score from
second on Nick Johnson's hit to right.

"I battled," said Waechter, who allowed eight hits, struck out
four and walked one in seven innings. "I felt like I had a good
outing, but I just wasn't good enough. That's the way baseball
works."

Contreras allowed two runs and five hits in seven innings and
was not involved in the decision in the Yankees' 5-2 loss to Tampa
Bay last Sunday.

This time, the Devil Rays were held to two hits before breaking
through for a run in the sixth without getting the ball out of the
infield.

Julio Lugo scored after reaching on an infield single and taking
second on second baseman Soriano's throwing error. Lugo moved to
third on Marlon Anderson's grounder and scored when Baldelli
grounded to short, trimming New York's lead to 2-1.

Game notes
The Yankees have hit nine homers in the first five games of
their 10-game road trip. ... LHP Andy Pettitte goes for his 20th
victory Saturday night. He is 10-1 lifetime against Tampa Bay,
including nine straight wins. ... The Devil Rays need to win three
of their remaining nine games to avoid finishing with at least 100
losses for the third consecutive season. ... Tampa Bay leads the AL
in walks allowed (612), hit batters (87) and wild pitches (62). The
last team to lead the league in all three categories was the 1981
Toronto Blue Jays. ... The crowd of 21,435 was the fourth-largest
at Tropicana Field this season.