Entering last night's game, the Yankees had scored at least five runs in 17 of Phil Hughes's 27 starts. In last night's 8-3 win, they got that out of the way in the bottom of the first. Hughes, the likely fourth starter but perhaps the first seventeen-game winner who's ever had to prove he deserves a spot in a playoff rotation, made a solid case by allowing three runs over six and a third innings, trusting his change-up and striking out six (but walking five). Dan Johnson did not homer this time.
Meanwhile, Javier Vazquez is pitching for a spot on the postseason roster, and last night did so with mixed results: He allowed a runner inherited from Hughes to score on Carl Crawford's single, but got Evan Longoria to ground into a fielder's choice to end the seventh. Then in the eighth, after Robinson Cano's double rolled past Carl Crawford to give the Yankees a 7-3 cushion, he allowed the first two runners to reach before Joba Chamberlain bailed him out. Hughes's stock rose last night; we're not so sure about Vazquez.
The win extended the Yankees' lead to two and a half games — matching the largest lead since July 27 — but more importantly, their rotation is coming together just as Tampa's is falling apart. The Rays' starters are 8-10 with a 5.32 ERA in September. Last night's starter, James Shields, hasn't won a game this month.
The Yankees' magic number to clinch a playoff spot is down to three, though a playoff berth hasn't really been in doubt for some time. Something to keep in mind tonight and tomorrow, however: The Yankees evened the season series with Tampa last night, and should the teams be tied at the end of the season but guaranteed playoff berths, head-to-head record is the first tiebreaker.