ST. PETERSBURG -- Kyle Farnsworth got the ground ball the Rays needed.
Unfortunately, Elliot Johnson's ensuing throw didn't find its intended target, and the play that could have curbed a Yankees rally turned into two runs. Those runs were the difference in a 6-4 New York win over the Rays at Tropicana Field Wednesday night.
The loss prevented the Rays (75-62) from sweeping the three-game series, allowing the Yankees (77-59) to regain sole possession of first place in the American League East, an event facilitated by the Orioles' 6-4 loss to the Blue Jays in Toronto. Meanwhile, the Rays finished the night in third place, 2 1/2 games behind the Yankees and 1 1/2 games out of the AL Wild Card race.
Andruw Jones singled off Matt Moore to start the Yankees' seventh and Ichiro Suzuki entered the game as a pinch-runner before Steve Pearce singled to right-center field. Jayson Nix then sacrificed the runners into scoring position for Derek Jeter.
At that point, Rays manager Joe Maddon brought in Farnsworth to pitch to Jeter.
The Rays' infielders were stationed on the grass, hoping to prevent Ichiro from scoring on a ground ball. When Jeter hit a 2-1 fastball right to Johnson, all looked right in the Rays' world, but the second baseman threw wild to catcher Jose Lobaton's left.
"I know Ichiro's running and the ball's not hit particularly hard," Johnson said. "I did my best to get rid of it as quick as I could and get it there as fast as I could. I [threw the ball] toward the third-base side, and obviously it went too far. It was up the line."
The ball got past Lobaton and went all the way to the backstop, allowing two runs to score.
"We had everything set up right there," Maddon said. "Kyle does a great job, makes a perfect pitch against Jeter. We get the play we want. There is plenty of time to make the throw and get the out. It was all there for us. ... That play, if it's made right there, we're in really good shape as we go forward."
Yankees hitters are known for their ability to put the baseball into the cheap seats. On Wednesday night, taking the small-ball route paved the way to victory.
"You're not always going to be able to come up and hit home runs all the time," Jeter said. "Especially when you're facing good pitching, they're not going to allow you to do it. Everyone knows how good Tampa's pitching staff is, and sometimes you've got to do the little things."
Johnson stood in front of his locker afterward and took responsibility for the loss.
"It was the play that cost us the game," Johnson said. "You never want to be in one of those situations. You never want to be that guy. I'm a grown man -- I can handle this sort of stuff. It's nothing you ever want to do, but you prepare for it.
"I've done this sort of thing in the Minor Leagues, and it's nowhere in comparison to this type of stage and this type of situation, in September, playing the Yankees that we're chasing. ... It's part of the game and something I'm going to have to deal with."
The Rays struck first, as Evan Longoria singled through the right side of the infield with two outs in the first to bring home Sam Fuld and provide a 1-0 lead.
And the way Moore looked, the idea of a 1-0 lead standing seemed plausible, particularly after the third inning. The rookie left-hander struck out the side in the third, which ended with a swinging strikeout of Nix, Moore's sixth of the game.
But the Yankees got busy in the fourth. Jeter reached on a popup that was ruled a single even after the ball ricocheted off Johnson's glove. One out later, Robinson Cano walked, then Alex Rodriguez doubled to right to drive home Jeter. Russell Martin then hit a ground-rule double to right that scored Cano and Rodriguez to give the Yankees a 3-1 lead.
Johnson fell on his sword for Jeter's hit in the fourth as well.
"I should have made that play, too," Johnson said. "That's probably an error, and I really don't think [Moore] deserves those runs."
A half-inning after Ben Zobrist tied the game at 3 with a two-out, two-run triple in the fifth, Russell Martin hit his 15th home run of the season to put the Yankees back on top, 4-3. But Luke Scott quickly answered for the Rays with a solo home run off Hiroki Kuroda in the sixth to again tie the game.
Moore, Farnsworth, Jake McGee and Wade Davis combined to strike out 15 Yankees on the night.
"Our pitchers were fabulous tonight," Maddon said. "That was one of the best nine innings of power pitching that we've done all year -- every one of them looked really, really good."
Though the Rays did not get their desired outcome, Maddon couldn't get too discouraged based on what has transpired over the past three days.
"I still like the idea about winning two out of three against a very good baseball club," Maddon said. "We weren't going to win the rest of our games from now until the end of the season, but if we play with that kind of intensity, intent and effort, God bless it; I'll take it."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.