ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- With ground to make up in their quest for another AL East title, the New York Yankees refused to lose.
Alex Rodriguez hit his 42nd home run and Robinson Cano erased a four-run deficit with a grand slam Thursday night, helping Aaron Small and the seven-time defending division winners rally to beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays 9-5.
"The team is playing with a lot of urgency right now. We realize how important each game is, and we're taking this as our playoff," Rodriguez said.
Small (8-0) became the first pitcher to win his first eight decisions with the Yankees since Doug Bird in 1980 and '81, and New York's fourth straight win continued its strong push in the AL East and wild-card races.
Coupled with Boston's loss to Oakland, the Yankees pulled 1½ games behind the Red Sox in the division and one-half game of idle Cleveland for the AL wild card. It the closest New York has been to first place in the division since Aug. 29.
"I don't think we're seeing colors in the other team's uniforms," Rodriguez said. "We know each game is important whether it's Boston or Tampa. We need each game desperately, and we're playing that way."
Cano and Rodriguez homered off Seth McClung (6-10) in the sixth inning. Cano's drive into the right field stands wiped out a 5-1 deficit, and Rodriguez followed with a two-run shot in his first at-bat after the Devil Rays' starter hit him in the back with a pitch in the fifth.
Cano added an RBI triple in the ninth to give him a career-high five RBI, and Bubba Crosby had a career high three hits and two RBI.
Now, it's off to Toronto for another crucial series.
"You only have a couple of hours to enjoy it, and then we have to think about business (Friday night)," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "It's a great feeling, especially falling behind. I think it says a lot about how determined these guys are."
Small allowed five runs and seven hits in 6 2/3 innings, improving to 6-0 in seven starts as a fill-in in a rotation decimated by injuries.
The Yankees, meanwhile, set a franchise record by winning for the 10th time after trailing by four or more runs.
"They are focused. There's no question about it," Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella said. "This is their stretch run, and they've got to make the best of it. They're going to be awfully tough."
Jonny Gomes hit a three-run homer off one of the catwalks that support the roof at Tropicana Field to put the Devil Rays ahead 5-1 in the fifth. Toby Hall drove in the first two runs off Small with a second-inning double.
Alan Embree replaced Small after Julio Lugo tripled with two outs in the seventh. Tom Gordon got the first two outs in the eighth, and Mariano Rivera worked the final 1 1-3 innings for his 39th save in 43 opportunities.
After banging out 31 hits and scoring 23 runs to win the first two games of the series, the Yankees got off to a slow start against McClung, who -- at least early -- was more successful against them than in previous appearances.
The 24-year-old right-hander allowed seven runs and seven hits in 3 2/3 innings over three career relief outings against New York before Thursday night. This time, he limited them to singles by Gary Sheffield and Crosby through four innings.
Cano opened the fifth with a double and scored on Crosby's second hit to trim Tampa Bay's lead to 2-1. The Yankees squandered an opportunity to take the lead after McClung plunked Rodriguez, drawing a warning from plate umpire Tim Timmons.
Crosby and Rodriguez advanced to second and third when Jason Giambi grounded out, but McClung got out of the jam when Sheffield, leading the AL with a .381 average with runners in scoring position, grounded out to end the inning.
McClung said he wasn't throwing at Rodriguez and didn't feel he deserved a warning.
"Why would I want another runner on base to drive in?" the Devil Rays pitcher said.
Gomes' homer was only the third off Small in 56 innings. Four of the young outfielder's rookie-leading 20 homers have come against New York, but the towering shot didn't faze the determined Yankees.
Cano entered the series 1-for-15 with the bases loaded and proceeded to go 2-for-3 over the last two games, including his 10th homer of the season on a 1-0 pitch from McClung, who allowed seven runs and eight hits in 5 1/3 innings.
"I was disappointed to lose one like this," McClung said. "I felt like I was beating them. I thought we were beating them. ... It really got away from me quick."
- Crosby has a career-high five-game hitting streak.
- Tampa Bay won the season series 11-8. The 11 wins equal their most against an opponent in one season. They were 11-8 against Toronto and Baltimore in 2003.
- The Devil Rays have only hit two homers in their last 10 games.
- The three-game sweep enabled the Yankees to finish 5-5 at Tropicana Field.