NEW YORK — Jose Alvarado stepped onto the Yankee Stadium mound, 18 hours after walking off with a look of disgust when he wasted a two-run, ninth-inning lead.
Luke Voit, whose home run started the previous night’s meltdown, singled leading off the 11th.
Not this time.
Alvarado struck out Aaron Hicks and retired Gary Sanchez on a game-ending double play that gave Tampa Bay a 2-1 win Saturday and regained the AL East lead for the Rays. Alvarado slapped his glove and pitching hand together twice, raised both arms to the heavens and smacked his hands together again.
“He was ready. He was telling me before, ‘I want the ball. I want the ball. I want to come in. I want to respond from yesterday,”‘ said left fielder Austin Meadows, who threw out Aaron Hicks at the plate in the sixth, then homered off Luis Cessa (0-1) in the 11th,
Tampa Bay had been alone in first place for 47 straight days, the third-longest streak in team history, before New York scored three times in the ninth against Alvarado for a 4-3 win in the series opener and a half-game AL East lead.
AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell left trailing 1-0 after six innings, bouncing a run-scoring wild pitch in the third. Brandon Lowe tied the score in the seventh with a home run on the second pitch after Tommy Kahnle replaced Masahiro Tanaka, who was hit by a comebacker that left him with a bruised shin of uncertain severity.
Alvarado threw 26 pitches Friday and pitching coach Kyle Synder inquired Saturday about the availability of the closer, who turns 24 on Tuesday. Alvarado didn’t hesitate.
Ready, he was.
Chad Roe, Adam Kolarek, Emilio Pagan and Hunter Wood (1-0) had followed Snell and combined for four innings of one-hit relief. While manager Kevin Cash wanted to avoid using Alvarado again, he called on him after Meadows’ ninth homer this season.
“I won’t say yesterday was easy,” Alvarado explained through a translator, “it’s part of the game.”
Voit’s leadoff hit in the 11th excited the crowd of a sun-splashed spring afternoon but did not faze Alvarado.
“To be able to bounce back, the guys, they showed each other something today,” Cash said.
Hicks got ahead 3-1 in the count, fouled off a sinker and swung over a slider that probably would have been low for ball four.
“There was an opportunity there for a walk, and I definitely could have changed the outcome of the game,” Hicks said.
Sanchez, who had struck out four times, fell behind 0-2 before hitting into a 5-4-3 double play and giving Alvarado got his fifth save in six chances.
“I had to just look at the situation, pay attention to the game, and be able to maintain my focus,” Alvarado said.
Hicks tried to score from second on Gleyber Torres’ two-out single in the sixth. Meadows charged and catcher Erik Kratz, making his first start for the Rays, snagged the slightly off-line, one-hop throw and tagged Hicks, who ran past third base coach Phil Nevin’s stop sign.
“I was committed to going. I felt like I could make it, and I took my chance,” Hicks said.
Tanaka outpitched Snell, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, for the second time in less than a week. Tanaka allowed three hits in six scoreless innings, struck out six and walked none.
Ji-Man Choi doubled with two outs on the sixth and Yandy Diaz followed with a hard grounder up the middle. The ball hit just above the pitcher’s right ankle and ricocheted to Voit, who stepped on first. The Yankees said X-rays were negative.
“There’s some swelling and some blueness to it,” Tanaka said through a translator.
He doesn’t know whether he will be able to take his next turn.
“We’ll see how it is tomorrow and I guess we can evaluate from there,” Tanaka said.
CC Sabathia had tried to hit Meadows three times Friday, a legacy of testiness from his previous two appearances against the Rays, Meadows was 0 for 4 Saturday when fouled off a slider from Cessa, stepped out, talked to himself and wagged his bat. Three pitches later, he drove a low, inside slider into the right-field seats, ending a streak of 13 straight outs for New York’s bullpen.
“That was fun to be able to do that,” Meadows said.
Hicks struck out in the third, dropping to 3 for 40 with the bases loaded. His first-inning single had ended an 0-for-8 slide that followed his return from a spring training back injury.
Sunday marks the first anniversary of the Rays using a relief pitcher as an opener in some games instead of a traditional starting pitcher, They are 40-29 in those games, 56-37 in others. “It can kind of set the tone a little bit, Cash said. “You’re just not too accustomed to seeing a guy come in and throwing 98, 99 miles an hour right out of the gate and basically playing matchup baseball in the first two innings.”
Rays: Wood was activated from the injured list, and RHP Austin Pruitt was optioned to Durham (IL). … INF Matt Duffy (left hamstring) was to play seven innings at shortstop rather than third for Class A Charlotte on Saturday night.
Yankees: SS Didi Gregorius is to play Monday in his first extended spring training game since Tommy John surgery on Oct. 17 and is projected to rejoin New York in June … LHP James Paxton (left knee inflammation) is to throw a bullpen session Sunday. … OF Giancarlo Stanton (left biceps, shoulder) is to start an injury rehab assignment for Class A Tampa on Monday night.
RHP Charlie Morton (4-0) starts the series finale for the Rays against RHP Chad Green (0-2) in a game the Yankees will rely on relievers.