NEW YORK -- Gio Urshela played the role of savior for the Yankees on Friday night, as he has done multiple times already this season. In a year where they’ve had numerous injuries, Urshela has turned into a key player who didn’t even appear to be set up for much playing time, if any, entering the year. His walk-off single to give the Yankees a 4-3 win over the Rays at Yankee Stadium was the first walk-off hit of his career, but it was his third game-tying or go-ahead hit in the ninth inning or later this season -- which leads the Majors.
Urshela capped a three-run ninth-inning rally for the Yankees. The win vaulted New York into first place in the American League East, a half-game ahead of the Rays. And again, the savior gave the Yankees what they needed -- a win while ensuring they did not let a strong CC Sabathia start go to waste. Of course, Urshela wasn’t the only savior in the victory.
The Yankees’ bats were dormant for most of the evening against the Rays’ parade of pitchers, with Ryne Stanek starting as an opener. Through eight innings, the Yankees had just one run, on a Kendrys Morales homer, and hadn’t gotten a hit with a runner on base.
But that all changed in the ninth inning against flamethrower Jose Alvarado. Enter the first savior -- Luke Voit. He rocketed the first pitch he saw from the Rays hurler into right-center field, homering on a 99 mph pitch. It was the third-fastest pitch hit for a home run this season and the fastest pitch a Yankees player had homered against since Gary Sánchez took a 99 mph Joe Kelly pitch deep on Aug. 18, 2017.
“We knew we had a chance … even though we’re facing Alvarado, doesn’t matter who we’re facing,” Voit said. “It is, honestly, crazy to think that could happen, but you know what? Just keep going.”
Gleyber Torres played the role of savior, too, keeping the rally going for the Yankees. After a Sanchez single and a Morales strikeout for the first out of the inning, Torres battled against Alvarado in a 10-pitch at-bat and smacked a double to left field. Thairo Estrada, who was pinch-running for Sanchez, advanced to third.
“For as good as he’s been swinging lately, that’s probably his best at-bat of the year,” manager Aaron Boone said. “That’s a grind it out, lay off some pitches, spoil some tough pitches, finally get one he can handle and smoked it. Really good at-bat by Gleyber.”
After a Clint Frazier intentional walk, Estrada scored the tying run on a wild pitch from Alvarado, his second wild pitch of the season, tying the total he’s had in each of the first two seasons of his career.
Cameron Maybin then hit into a fielder’s choice that resulted in the second out of the inning at home plate, but Urshela connected on a 99 mph 2-0 sinker and launched it over Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier’s head. It was the Yankees’ third walk-off win of the season.
“Great at-bats [from Urshela] all night, tonight obviously a couple hits the other way, and then absolutely scalded that ball,” Boone said. “They had him played perfectly, but he hit it so hard to get it over his head. Just another [example of] him coming up in a big way, like he has much of the year so far.”
Asked what he was thinking during the rally, Sabathia echoed that confidence in Urshela.
“‘We got this,’” he said he was thinking. “Especially when Gio came up, I said, ‘Turn out the lights.’”
Sabathia added that Urshela’s defense has been a big part of what’s impressed him about the infielder.
“It’s not even the hits, it’s the defense,” Sabathia said. “The way he’s been playing defense for us, making every play ... [and] it’s been incredible to watch him take great at-bats and hit the ball really all over the field.”
Alvarado allowed four hits in the inning. He’d allowed just eight hits all season before Friday night. It was Alvarado’s first blown save of the year in his fifth chance.
“We know we’re up against a tough customer in Alvarado there, but guys expect it,” Boone said. “Guys have been so good in the compete department that I wasn’t surprised that they’d go down fighting. But to string together the level of at-bats against that guy right there was really impressive.”
The run support came late for Sabathia, but it saved the Yankees from losing another strong start by the big lefty. Sabathia pitched six innings, allowing just one run on a Willy Adames homer. He’s allowed two runs or fewer in five of his seven starts this season. With the win, the Yankees improved to 3-2 in those five games, after losing the two most recent instances on Saturday and April 30.
The late rally mattered in the standings, too. It’s only May, but the entire series is shrouded in the aura of the AL East race, with the Rays appearing to be legitimate contenders in 2019 and the Yankees finding themselves in it despite numerous injuries.
The last time the Yankees were in first place was when they were a game up after an Opening Day win. The Yankees have been saved multiple times already in this young season, and Friday night was yet another example -- turning what was almost a 1 1/2-game deficit in the division into a half-game lead.