NEW YORK -- A little more than a week after hitting coach Kevin Long suggested the Yankees might turn to small ball out of desperation, they unveiled it at Yankee Stadium on Sunday of their own free will.
The Yankees stole four bases, laid down two sacrifice bunts and took advantage of two Tampa Bay errors to win the series finale, 6-4, keeping their American League East lead at one game following Baltimore's 9-5 victory over Oakland.
"That's the first time we've really kind of used that small ball to our advantage," said Nick Swisher, who bunted on his own in New York's five-run third inning. "But when we have small ball and Bronx ball going back and forth, it's going to be fun for us."
The Yankees were simply following their shortstop's lead, but it was 25-year-old Eduardo Nunez, not veteran captain Derek Jeter.
Tampa Bay starter Matt Moore attempted to pick Nunez off first base four times after he walked to start the third inning, then Nunez stole second to jump-start the inning.
The Yankees' captain did his part, too, driving in Nunez with a single in the next at-bat, and then scampering to second on the throw home despite a bone bruise in his left ankle that has limited him to designated hitting duties. That set the tone for an inning that saw New York take extra bases at every opportunity, frustrating the Rays, who fell five games back in the American League East.
"We've talked about playing better baseball, and we're starting to do that," said manager Joe Girardi, who disagreed with Long's suggestion that New York bunt more, but considers stealing bases part of small ball. "That's extremely important this time of year."
Alex Rodriguez followed Jeter's RBI single with one of his own, then advanced on a wild pitch and stole third. The extra bases mattered little, as Robinson Cano followed with a walk and Russell Martin drove them both in with a three-run homer into the right-field seats.
By the time home-plate umpire Paul Emmel had ejected Rays manager Joe Maddon and Moore allowed Curtis Granderson to advance two bases on an errant pickoff throw to first, New York already led, 5-0.
"That third inning was just atrocious," said Moore, who was removed before the fourth.
Nunez stole his second and third bases an inning later, after he reached on a fielding error by reliever Brandon Gomes. That put him in position to score on a sacrifice fly from Rodriguez that the shallow right-field fence at Yankee Stadium barely held.
Girardi said before Sunday's finale that Nunez's play at shortstop in place of a hampered Jeter might warrant more playing time upon the Captain's return, and the September callup justified it, as he became just the second player to steal at least 10 bags for the Yankees this season, despite appearing in just 29 games.
"I know I can help the team win," Nunez said. "It's hard to win games all the time with just home runs. Sometimes we need to score runs with a walk and a stolen base."
They did just that on Sunday, providing rare run support for Hiroki Kuroda, who entered the game with more tough-luck losses than any starter in the rotation.
The right-hander cruised through the early innings, recording the first six outs on strikeouts and surrendering just a Ben Zobrist solo home run in the fourth.
But Kuroda gave way to the bullpen after Tampa Bay put up three runs in the sixth.
The Rays loaded the bases with no outs courtesy of two walks and an infield single. All three runners scored -- one on a double play and two on a ground ball that gave Rodriguez an unforgiving hop over his glove at third base -- and the Yankees lost an out when first baseman Steve Pearce collided with a fan down the first-base line on a popup.
"None of them were clean hits, so I wish I could have that inning back," Kuroda said. "I just had to regroup myself and go after that last hitter."
He did, striking out B.J. Upton to finish with 10 on the day and allowing the bullpen to bridge the gap to Rafael Soriano, who recorded his 40th save in place of Mariano Rivera.
The Yankees' fourth victory in their past five games created a lively atmosphere, allowing Swisher to dance in the clubhouse to his rendition of "Pitch Soriano" -- the music that replaced "Enter Sandman" as Soriano leaves the bullpen -- and letting the Yankees speak proudly about their rare use of small ball, not questioning whether they should turn to it out of concern.
"It just brings an element that you can create runs," Girardi said, "and that's really important for a club."
Steven Miller is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.