Standing at his locker in between Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano, Eduardo Nunez addressed the group of reporters wanting to know about his exploits on the bases wearing a green T-shirt that read “The Life of the Party.”
Nunez fit that description during the “small ball” party the Yankees had in building the first two runs in a decisive five-run third inning in Sunday’s 6-4 victory over the Rays. The win kept them in sole possession of first place in the AL East.
“I feel like I can do things to help this team win,” Nunez said. “You can’t always win games with home runs. Sometimes you need walks and stolen bases.”
“I call it small ball,” manager Joe Girardi said. “It’s more than bunting. It just brings an element where you can create runs and that’s really important for clubs.”
In a game that began with the Yankees getting dominated by Matt Moore and generating several weak swings and misses, it was the smaller things that sparked their seventh win in 11 games and their most productive inning at Yankee Stadium since the sixth inning on Aug. 16 against Texas.
“He was really dominating us those two innings,” Alex Rodriguez said. “I said yesterday that he changes the game offensively for us. He has a unique package. He has power; he has speed.”
The Yankees don’t necessarily need the power element Nunez showed Saturday in hitting his first home run. Rather, they can use an injection of what occurred in a third inning Sunday when they saw nearly 50 pitches.
It started rather uneventfully as Nunez led off with a walk, making him an immediate stolen base threat for a team that came into Sunday ranked 12th in the AL with 74 steals. Moore repeatedly threw over, but Nunez swiped second on a 1-1 pitch and two pitches later, Derek Jeter’s single to right scored the first run.
In keeping with the theme of “small ball,” Nick Swisher moved Jeter to third by deciding to bunt on his own.
“Moore’s throwing super hard,” Swisher said. “I’m kind of a pull guy and [I wanted] to put the ball on the carpet and move that runner over.”
That was followed by Rodriguez lining a 2-2 changeup into center field, which easily scored Jeter.
“I was trying to think small,” Rodriguez said. “That was probably the best offensive inning we had all year. We had a walk, we had a bunt, we had a stolen base and we had a homer. Those things are good for us. Hopefully we can build off this.”
The string of good at-bats continued when Robinson Cano walked and Russell Martin hit a full-count fastball into the right field seats for a three-run home run and five-run lead.
“The patience was what really paid off,” Girardi said. “You look up and I think we had six runs on three hits. We took advantage of some things. Nuney stole some bases, just some really good at-bats. You look at Alex’s at-bat with a runner on third, less than two outs down to two strikes and he ends up getting the base hit.”
The trio of small ball, good at-bats and power assisted Hiroki Kuroda earn his 11th win in 15 decisions since May 27. Kuroda pitched six solid innings as he dominated through five and ran into some bad luck in the sixth.
The bad luck included a fan reaching over to grab a catchable foul ball away from first baseman Steve Pearce. It also included Evan Longoria’s double-play grounder taking a weird hop and going over Rodriguez’s head for two runs.
After getting Matt Joyce on a double play that scored a run, Kuroda finished off his 14th victory by striking out B.J. Upton. It was the 10th strikeout for Kuroda, who used his combination of split-fingered fastballs and sliders to come within one of his career high.
Small ball also helped give Kuroda more than five runs for just the second time since July 18 and the 10th time in his 30 starts.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.