ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) – With Gary Sheffield and Mariano Rivera back, the New York Yankees kept rolling in pursuit of the best record in the American League and homefield advantage in the playoffs.

Sheffield returned to the lineup for the first time since May 29, and made an impressive debut at first base. Rivera pitched the ninth and earned his 34th save in his first appearance since Aug. 31, as the AL East champions beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays 4-1 Friday night.

Rivera struck out the side around a broken-bay single and a hit batter.

Sheffield, who had seven putouts, saved a run with the score tied 1-1 by scooping third baseman Miguel Cairo’s low throw out of the dirt to end the sixth with a runner on third.

Sheffield went 0-for-3 before leaving the game after the Yankees took a three-run lead in the seventh.

Robinson Cano and Aaron Guiel homered to back starter Chien-Ming Wang (18-6), who allowed six hits, including Rocco Baldelli’s solo homer in the first, and struck out four to improve 3-0 this season against Tampa Bay.

The victory in New York’s first game since clinching its ninth straight division title on Wednesday night improved the Yankees’ record to 93-60. The last-place Devil Rays tied an AL record by losing for the 57th time after holding a lead.

Sheffield missed 103 games during his second stint on the disabled list this season with a wrist injury. The outfielder had surgery June 13, and worked out at first base during his rehabilitation.

With the division title in hand, the Yankees gave the night off to Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui and Bobby Abreu. Johnny Damon was scratched as a precaution for the second straight game after cutting his throwing hand making a diving catch at Toronto on Tuesday, and Jason Giambi may sit out the entire four-game series with a small ligament tear in his left wrist.

How well Sheffield does at first base could impact the Yankees’ postseason roster. If the move works out, Matsui could move back to left field and Giambi ideally would enter the playoffs as the designated hitter.

James Shields retired the first 10 Yankees before Cano homered with one out in the fourth.

The Yankees broke the tie in the seventh. Bernie Williams singled with one out and scored on Guiel’s first homer since July 25. Cairo singled for the third straight hit off Shields and scored when Melky Cabrera doubled.

Shields allowed four runs and eight hits in seven innings. He struck out six and walked none.

Notes: The 2002 Tigers also lost 57 games in which they led. The major league record is 66 by the 1998 Marlins. … Cano has 45 RBIs in 44 games since returning from a stint on the DL with a hamstring injury. … Tampa Bay OF Carl Crawford went 1-for-4 and stole his AL-high 55th base. He has 88 hits against the Yankees since the start of the 2003 season. According to Stats, Inc., Baltimore’s Miguel Tejada (92) is the only player with more in that span. … Devil Rays 2B Jorge Cantu was scratched from the lineup with a fever.

AP-ES-09-22-06 2138EDT


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