NEW YORK -- The Yankees were headed up the tunnel from the dugout to their clubhouse after Randy Johnson, Mariano Rivera and Matt Lawton combined with some great defense to beat the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 Wednesday night.
That's when manager Joe Torre heard the crowd roar.
The scoreboard flashed that Tampa Bay had taken an eighth-inning lead against Boston. For only the third night this year, the Yankees went to bed with sole possession of the AL East lead.
"I thought Randy went back out there for a curtain call," catcher John Flaherty said.
Johnson (15-8) limited the Orioles to three hits over eight innings in his first start since a second-inning ejection last week, and Lawton broke out of a long slump with a two-run homer in the second inning off Rodrigo Lopez (14-11).
New York's victory and the 7-4 loss by the Red Sox put the Yankees (88-63) a half-game ahead of Boston (88-64). The only other times this year that New York led the division were after an opening-night win over the Red Sox and following a July 18 victory at Texas.
"First place only counts on that last Sunday," Torre said after the win, New York's ninth in 10 games.
The Yankees, a season-high 25 games over .500, were nine games out of first in early May following an 11-19 start and trailed by four games after losing to Boston on Aug. 10. Seeking their eighth straight AL East title, they now lead with 11 games to go.
"We got to where we want to be, but it doesn't change the focus of this team at all," Flaherty said. "This is going to be a grind all the way out."
On Friday night at Toronto, Johnson was ejected in the second inning for repeatedly complaining about the calls of plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth. He didn't get into it with Tuesday's plate umpire, Larry Vanover, but the 6-foot-10 left-hander did motion with both hands at first-base umpire Randy Marsh when he didn't get a check-swing call on former AL MVP Miguel Tejada in the fourth, mimicking a swing.
"I just was focused. I was not going to get all worked up about stuff," Johnson said.
He didn't allow a hit until the fifth inning and didn't give up a run until the sixth, when Melvin Mora hit a long RBI double.
"He controlled his emotions," Flaherty said. "I'd like to see him get a little more excited out there, but I think he was guarded after what happened the last start in Toronto, and that's only natural."
Third baseman Alex Rodriguez helped the Big Unit out twice in the sixth, backhanding Bernie Castro's grounder over the bag to hold him to a single, then sprawling on his knees to grab Javy Lopez's two-out grounder to his glove side and throwing to first to end the inning with Mora on third.
Johnson pointed at A-Rod as he came off the mound.
"That one was an in-between hop," Rodriguez said. "It was tricky and, obviously with a man on third, any fumble is a run - tie game. That made it a little bit more difficult."
Johnson struck out six and walked one, improving to 4-0 in his last six starts. He retired his first 11 batters and his final eight.
"He pitched backwards to me: first the sliders, then the fastball," Orioles designated hitter Alejandro Freire said.
Eric Byrnes had reached on a one-out throwing error by Jeter - fans applauded when it was ruled an error that kept Baltimore hitless -- and Chris Gomez singled cleanly to right before the double play. Giambi had a tight lower back and was replaced in the sixth by Tino Martinez.
After Johnson struck out Castro with a 96 mph fastball on his 119th and final pitch, Rivera came in and pitched a one-hit ninth for his 41st save in 45 chances. Baltimore put two on with one out before Rivera struck out pinch-hitter Jay Gibbons and retired B.J. Surhoff, another pinch-hitter, on a soft liner.
Lawton, acquired from the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 27, had been hitless in 19 at-bats, his longest slide in two years, and had not homered since Aug. 29. Hideki Matsui singled off Rodrigo Lopez with one out in the second and Lawton hit a two-out drive just over the wall in right, his fifth hit in 42 at-bats with New York.
"He looked at me and said, 'Who's the new guy?'" the outfielder recalled.
"I asked him, 'Can we start over?' " Lawton said. "Tonight was a good debut for myself."
- Baltimore, which lost its fourth straight, learned before the game that All-Star 2B Brian Roberts will need about six months to recover from injuries to his left arm sustained in a collision with the Yankees' Bubba Crosby on Tuesday night.
- Rodrigo Lopez gave up six hits in six innings.
- The crowd of 50,382 boosted New York's home attendance to more than 3.87 million. Barring rainouts, the Yankees will go over the 4 million mark for the first time when they play Toronto on Saturday.
- New York was 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position.