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09/22/10 12:15 AM ET

Yanks' five-run first the difference vs. Rays

Hughes extends division lead to 2 1/2 games with 17th win

NEW YORK -- A five-run first inning permitted Phil Hughes to get comfortable, and the Yankees can now rest a little easier, too. Their grip on first place in the American League East will be safe at least until the Rays leave town.

Hughes pitched into the seventh inning after being provided with all of the support he'd need early, and the Yankees kept the runs coming late to finish up strong in an 8-3 victory over Tampa Bay on Tuesday night. With the Red Sox's loss to the Orioles, the Yankees' magic number to clinch a postseason berth is three.

The win nudges New York's advantage in the AL East to 2 1/2 games, ensuring that Tampa Bay will pack up on Thursday still trailing in the division race, with no more head-to-head meetings scheduled between the evenly stacked rivals.

"No question, this is a big series," said Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, who had an RBI single in the five-run first inning. "You want to gain on them and you want to win your games here at home. We were better with guys on base today [than Monday]."

Hughes entered Tuesday with the best run support -- 7.73 per nine innings -- of any Major League pitcher, and the Yankees played true to those statistics by batting around in their first turn against starter James Shields.

Nick Swisher started the damage with a solo line-drive homer, his 27th, and after Posada drove in New York's second run, Lance Berkman followed with a booming two-run double and Curtis Granderson added an RBI single.

It created a nice cushion for Hughes, seeking his first victory of the month and trying to find his rhythm after having a Sept. 10 start at Texas skipped, a nod to a looming innings limitation that could necessitate his being bounced from the rotation for at least the remainder of the regular season.

"That's something that we'll continue to talk about as we move forward here," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Tonight's a big win for us and a big win for him. A guy who came in as a fifth starter for us has thrown the ball awfully well for us."

So for now, it was a chance to get everything on track. Relying heavily on his changeup and without command of his curveball, Hughes dabbled with danger -- tying a season high with five walks -- but he hung on long enough to post his career-high 17th win.

"It's nice to be able to get some momentum going into October," Hughes said. "You can try to limit innings and skip starts, or cut starts short. I really feel like this was the better option -- I can go out and have a full outing. Getting skipped here and there, it's manageable."

Hughes said that he had thrown a few good changeups against the Rays last week at Tropicana Field and knew it would be an effective pitch for him if he could trust it. As the right-hander saw on Tuesday, even without his best command, the pitch did help him get out of spots as well as set up counts to hitters.

"Obviously, he's going to learn a lot more and grow a lot more from days like today, and he proved it," Posada said. "He's capable of doing everything he's doing and attacking some of those hitters. To be able to minimize his mistakes, that's the biggest thing, and he's been able to do that."

Matt Joyce put Tampa Bay on the board in the second inning, connecting for a solo home run, his ninth. Evan Longoria knocked in John Jaso with a run-scoring single to left in the third inning, but Hughes said he then found his groove.

The Rays were silenced into the seventh inning, when Hughes departed after two batters and yielded to Javier Vazquez.

"We had a chance," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I'm sure [Hughes would] tell you that he wasn't as sharp as he would have liked to have been. He wasn't as good as he was last week, but he was able to pitch out of some jams."

Vazquez got the second out of the inning but surrendered a run-scoring single to Carl Crawford, closing Hughes' line at three runs and four hits across 6 1/3 innings. Vazquez had not pitched since Sept. 10 at Texas and appears to be considered only a long-relief option with the postseason approaching.

"As a competitor, it's disappointing," Vazquez said. "You can't hide that fact. I'm just happy they used me in that situation tonight."

Shields quieted the Yankees after the first inning, completing 5 1/3 innings of seven-hit ball, but New York added two insurance runs in the seventh off Tampa Bay pitching.

After Chad Qualls started the inning, Robinson Cano greeted Randy Choate with a blooped two-run double that eluded a diving Crawford in left field and trickled away, allowing both Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez to score.

It would come in handy, as the Yankees had to lean on Joba Chamberlain for the final five outs, lacking Dave Robertson, Kerry Wood and Mariano Rivera in their bullpen due to heavy recent use.

Chamberlain's biggest moment came in the eighth, when B.J. Upton lined a single off the right-hander's leg to load the bases and bring what was, at the time, the potential tying run to the plate with one out.

An eight-pitch battle with pinch-hitter Brad Hawpe followed, and Chamberlain unloaded an 85-mph slider that Hawpe waved at before the inning's final out came on a fly ball to center.

"I've seen him hit a few times on TV, just not much here," Chamberlain said of Hawpe. "I knew I had to attack him, and I felt like that was my best chance in that situation."

Derek Jeter continued to fight off a late-season skid with a well-struck RBI single in the eighth inning that provided extra breathing room, extending the captain's hitting streak to 10 games -- just the right time for a Yankees team that can see the regular season's finish line approaching.

"Right now, it seems like things are starting to click a little bit," Jeter said. "We still haven't accomplished anything, but I like how we're playing."

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