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04/15/08 11:25 PM EST

Pettitte settles in, holds Rays at bay

Lefty notches seventh straight victory at Tropicana Field

ST. PETERSBURG -- Every time Andy Pettitte looked around the infield in the first few innings, he was surrounded by Rays, which might have made it difficult for an outsider to believe the left-hander was turning a corner.

Even though Tampa Bay's aggressive approach yielded two early runs and a smattering of hits, Pettitte knew he was getting sharper. Eventually -- and finally, for those who followed his slow spring -- the results caught up with his feelings.

Pettitte logged seven innings of quality ball on Tuesday at Tropicana Field, while Hideki Matsui homered and drove in two runs. The Yankees defeated the Rays, 5-3, sweeping an abbreviated two-game series and completing an eight-day road trip.

"I felt good from the get-go," Pettitte said. "For the first time, I felt like I had everything working, [but] I felt like I was throwing batting practice for the first three innings.

"They were just so aggressive in getting hits. I was fortunate to get out of the first few innings without letting them do too much damage."

Facing Tampa Bay for the second time this season, Pettitte ran his Tropicana Field winning streak to seven games. He wasn't especially dominant for openers but escaped damage, stranding two in the first and inducing an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the second.

Jonny Gomes and Mike DiFelice came through with run-scoring singles against Pettitte in the third, drawing Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland to the mound, but Pettitte struck out Justin Ruggiano to end the inning and retired seven straight after the visit.

"I've seen him enough to understand that even when he doesn't have his best stuff, he's going to fight," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "That's the mark of a winner. That's why Andy Pettitte has so many wins in his career."

It was in the third inning that Pettitte began to find a better feel on his curveball, an important part of his repertoire which had been virtually non-existent through his first two starts of the season.

Perhaps it was the lower back spasms that derailed his Spring Training and cost him two starts, or maybe it was the less-than-ideal weather conditions that Pettitte saw in New York and Kansas City. Either way, under the climate-controlled conditions of the big roof in St. Petersburg, Pettitte was happy to have an old friend back.

"I'm getting there, and that's nice," Pettitte said. "My cutter is starting to go down and it's starting to do what I want it to. I feel like my arm strength is getting there."

In the sixth, Jason Bartlett drove home a run off Pettitte on an infield single to short, and Pettitte completed his workload after exactly 100 pitches in the seventh, scattering nine hits and walking three, but striking out five.

"I got to 100 pitches tonight and I still felt fairly decent, and I was taxed extremely hard through the first three innings," he said. "I'm definitely pleased with where it's going. Each game has got better and better."

Matsui hit his third homer of the season -- all against the Rays -- when he opened scoring against Edwin Jackson in the second. New York added two more in the fourth as Matsui brought home Bobby Abreu with a groundout and Alex Rodriguez slid home safely on a wild pitch after doubling, his 400th career two-base hit.

The Yankees extended their lead to 5-2 with two more runs in the fifth. Johnny Damon walked, stole second and scored on a Derek Jeter RBI single, and Abreu followed with a well-struck single to center to bring home Jeter, who had a season-high three hits.

"We were able to keep grinding and got some big key hits," Damon said. "We battled. It seems like all of our wins this year, we've had to battle really hard and I thought we did that."

New York wasted a bases-loaded, one-out threat in the seventh, after J.P. Howell had walked two and allowed a single to Jeter. Howell came back to get Abreu to fly out to shallow center, pinning Chad Moeller at third base, and struck out Rodriguez swinging to end the inning.

There was a similar story in the eighth, as Damon flew out with the bases loaded. All told, the Yankees stranded eight runners in the final three innings alone -- 10 overall.

"I don't think any of us are worried about the offense," Damon said. "This offense is going to score runs. Five runs is not our best performance, but hopefully it's a sign of things to come."

The missed opportunities mattered not because Kyle Farnsworth and Mariano Rivera held the Rays scoreless. That was perhaps the most encouraging sign for the Yankees, who are patching things together without the services of dominant reliever Joba Chamberlain.

Rivera stifled Tampa Bay for his fifth save of the young season -- his fifth save of 2007 didn't come until June 3 -- but later, it was Farnsworth's 1-2-3 eighth inning that seemed to have Girardi most pleased.

"We're going to need him. He's important to our bullpen," Girardi said. "We need him to pitch like he's capable of pitching, like he did tonight."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.