ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The Yankees' dugout exploded, gray-clad players tumbling out of it as if a walk-off homer had won something far more important than a regular-season game.
But the Yankees, beaten up over the weekend by the AL East-leading Blue Jays, could be excused for their enthusiasm. It was warranted.
After nearly getting no-hit, finding themselves one out from defeat and facing the prospect of falling four games behind Toronto, Alex Rodriguez and Slade Heathcott -- yes, Slade Heathcott -- saved the day.
A-Rod lined a two-out RBI double to right-center off closer Brad Boxberger to tie it before Heathcott's opposite-field three-run homer sent the Yankees to a 4-1 victory over the Rays Monday night in front of 11,940 at Tropicana Field.
Was the hit by September call-up Heathcott the biggest of the season for the Yankees?
"For sure,'' said CC Sabathia, who pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings in his best start of the season. "I think if you just look at our dugout, the way they reacted, it was definitely the biggest hit of the season."
Added Brett Gardner, who walked and stole second against Boxberger to set up A-Rod's double that tied it at 1: "We were pretty fired up. That's probably the most excited we've been all year. Every game from here on out's pretty important."
The Yankees (79-64) moved within three games of the idle Blue Jays with 19 to play. Toronto begins a series tonight against Atlanta - a team that has lost 46 of its last 60 games.
Held hitless by Erasmo Ramirez for seven innings, the Yankees fell behind 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth on Logan Forsythe's two-out RBI double off the top of the leftfield wall against lefty Justin Wilson.
Boxberger, who has 34 saves, came on for the ninth. Pinch hitter Dustin Ackley singled for the Yankees' second hit before Jacoby Ellsbury extended his slump to 0-for-21 by grounding into a 3-6 double play.
But Gardner walked on four pitches, stole second and scored the tying run when Rodriguez ripped a 1-and-1 pitch into the gap in right-center for his 82nd RBI.
"Him stealing the base changes my whole at-bat," A-Rod said. "Now you're not thinking extra-base hit, you're thinking just be a good hitter, get a base hit. With his speed, you know you're going to tie the game."
After Brian McCann was intentionally walked, Heathcott - the Yankees' 2009 first-round pick whose career has mostly been defined by injuries and who actually was released last offseason - batted for the first time in a major-league game since May 27.
The lefthanded-hitting Heathcott, 24, wasted no time, swinging at the first pitch and launching a 90-mph fastball just over the leftfield wall to set off the dugout celebration.
Said Heathcott, "Cloud 9. Just awesome. Got a good pitch to hit and I put a pretty good barrel on it.''
A-Rod, replaced by pinch runner Chris Young after his double, called Heathcott's hit "a big, signature Yankee moment for him."
How difficult was it for Heathcott to get his first at-bat in 31/2 months in that situation? "I think it's really difficult because it's in the middle of a race and he has not been here in a while,'' Joe Girardi said. "To be able to do that off a really good closer, it's pretty amazing.''
Andrew Miller struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth for his 33rd save.
Ramirez, who came in 10-5 with a 3.90 ERA, took a no-hitter into the eighth before Carlos Beltran broke it up, leading off with a ground smash off first baseman Richie Shaffer.
"It changes quickly, that's the thing about this game, emotions can change quickly," Girardi said of the roller-coaster late innings. "To be able to do it with two outs in the ninth is pretty special."