Jeter delivered with his bat and glove, backing a determined effort by Pettitte that sent the Yankees past the AL East-leading Tampa Bay Rays 5-0 Tuesday.
"People make a big deal, obviously, because it's Tampa," Jeter said. "Every game is big. We just so happen to be playing them."
Playing smartly, and perhaps with a sense of urgency, the third-place Yankees avoided falling 9½ games behind Tampa Bay. The Rays, with the best record in majors, lost two in row for the first time since June 10-11.
"We know they are a good team. They can make a run at any time," Rays outfielder Carl Crawford said. "But it doesn't matter who we lose to. It's just a loss and we try to forget it and move on to the next game."
Coming off two tight wins over Boston, and about to head into the All-Star break, the Yankees counted on two of their veterans to turn back the young Rays.
"We knew the importance of the game," manager Joe Girardi said.
Jeter lined an early go-ahead double off All-Star Scott Kazmir, then made a stellar, spinning play in the seventh inning that preserved a two-run lead and prompted a sellout crowd to chant his name. Pettitte needed little other help in pitching eight sharp innings.
"It was a big game for us," Pettitte said. "These guys are ahead of us. They're playing with a lot of confidence."
Rays manager Joe Maddon noted before the first pitch the increased attention on this two-game set created "an October feel." He said his team would merely treat it as another series -- the Yankees, in their 90th game this season, saw it as chance to make up ground.
Pettitte (10-6) returned to form, giving up only four hits and walking none. He was focused from the start, often standing with his glove in front of his face, even while Tampa Bay hitters stepped out of the batter's box.
Pettitte was hit hard by Boston in his last outing and called that performance "horrible" and "terrible."
This time, the Rays barely had a chance as Pettitte improved to 15-4 lifetime against them. Pettitte retired the first two batters on two pitches, and was on his way.
When Tampa Bay had a late glimmer of hope, Jeter extinguished it.
Down 2-0, Tampa Bay put runners at the corners with two outs in the seventh. Willy Aybar hit a grounder in the hole that Jeter tracked down, and the All-Star shortstop jumped, spun and made a strong toss from several steps onto the outfield grass that forced out Dioner Navarro at second base.
"I knew I had a chance," Jeter said after his signature play. "As long as you get to it quick and get rid of it quick."
Pettitte wildly waved his left fist in celebration, and several of Jeter's teammates waited to salute their captain near the pitcher's mound.
"That was possibly the game-changer," Tampa Bay's B.J. Upton said. "Runs were definitely hard to come by tonight. We had a chance to score there, and maybe get a couple more."
The crowd of 53,089 broke into a chant for Jeter, and cheered him again when he singled and slid home on Bobby Abreu's double in a three-run eighth.
Reliever Edwar Ramirez pitched a hitless ninth for New York.
Kazmir (7-4), who will be back at Yankee Stadium next Tuesday for the All-Star Game, started in impressive fashion. He struck out Jeter and Alex Rodriguez while fanning seven of the first 10 batters.
At that point, it looked like "he's going to strike out 20," Pettitte said.
Jeter came up with runners on second and third with two outs in the third, and hit a drive to right-center field for a 2-0 lead. Abreu followed with a single to center field, and Upton's one-hop throw cut down Jeter at the plate.
Kazmir struck out nine. He has won just one of his last six starts.
- Yankees C Jose Molina had thrown out 12 straight runners trying to steal until Upton swiped second in the seventh inning. Molina's streak was the longest in the majors since Mike LaValliere also caught 12 in 1993.
- Upton threw out his ninth runner this season.
- The Yankees threw their fifth shutout in the last 21 games.
- New York RHP Carl Pavano threw 30 pitches in his first batting practice session since undergoing elbow surgery on June 5, 2007. In the final season of a $39.95 million, four-year contract, the oft-injured Pavano is 5-6 in 19 starts with the Yankees, including 1-0 with a 4.76 ERA in two starts last year.