By BEN WALKER
NEW YORK — Up by nine runs in the late innings, the Tampa Bay Rays wound up needing their closer to finish off this latest victory.
“It’s not always an oil painting,” manager Joe Maddon observed.
Masterpiece or not, here’s a portrait of a winning team: From last place a month ago to now leading the tough AL East.
Jeremy Hellickson retired Yankees newcomer Alfonso Soriano with the bases loaded to preserve an early lead and the streaking Rays tagged CC Sabathia once again, beating New York 10-6 on Friday night.
The Rays have won 20 of 23 and took sole possession of the division lead for the first time since June 10, 2012. Recently seven games behind, Tampa Bay moved a half-game ahead of Boston.
“Of course there’s gratification in it, but there’s no complacency,” Maddon said. “It’s always good to validate what you’re doing.”
Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar and Evan Longoria doubled during a six-run burst in the second inning, and James Loney later homered and drove in four runs as the Rays got way ahead in the seventh.
“We were playing such a great game tonight. Not a good game, a great game,” Maddon said. “Unfortunately, we let them up a little.”
“You don’t want an under-duress moment after you’re up 10-1 and have to sweat one out,” he said. “That’s not cool.”
Well supported all season, Hellickson (10-3) won his sixth straight decision. Fernando Rodney, the Rays’ fourth pitcher in a three-run ninth, got the last out for his 25th save.
“It’s not hard to win games when I’m getting eight, nine, 10 runs a game,” Hellickson said.
Trying to add power, the Yankees acquired Soriano from the Chicago Cubs before the game, trading a minor league pitcher to get the seven-time All-Star and lots of cash to cover much of his contract.
Soriano got his chance to make a sudden impact, batting with the bases loaded, two outs in the third and the Yankees trailing 6-1. With Tampa Bay’s infield overshifted to the left side, he ran the count full before lofting a routine fly to right that ended the inning.
The 37-year-old Soriano, who began his career with the Yankees in 1999 and drew a big ovation in his return, went 0 for 5, scored once and drove in a run. He got an RBI with a bases-loaded forceout in the ninth.
“It’s a good day for me today to have a chance to put on the uniform again,” he said.
“I hope we have a better chance tomorrow,” he said. “It’s a tough day tonight.”
Soriano did more on defense, catching a fly to start the game, making a throw that helped nail a runner and running down a foul ball.
Hellickson gave up one run and four hits in six innings, retiring his last nine batters and sending the Yankees to their seventh loss in 10 games. He also flashed a fast glove, snaring Ichiro Suzuki’s liner right in front of his face.
Sabathia (9-9) was booed early and was hit hard for the third straight start, allowing 22 runs over 14 innings in that span. He got a true Bronx cheer when he struck out Loney while escaping a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the third.
Sabathia joined Chien-Ming Wang as the only Yankees pitchers since 1935 to allow at least seven runs in three straight starts.
“I feel like throughout my career I’ve been able to kind of avoid and pitch out of the big innings. Here lately I haven’t been able to make a pitch,” he said.
“We’re right in the middle of this thing and if I can help us out, I feel like we would be doing a lot better. But getting no help from me is making it tough,” he said.
The Rays have been particularly prickly for Sabathia. He is just 4-11 in 23 starts against them, including four this season, since joining the Yankees.
A two-out walk to eighth-place hitter Jose Lobaton set up Sam Fuld’s RBI single in the second and Desmond Jennings followed with a bunt single that catcher Austin Romine threw away for another run. Longoria delivered a two-run double and scored on Wil Myers’ single.
Loney had an RBI single in the fifth and hit a three-run homer in the seventh off Adam Warren.