NEW YORK -- Jeff Niemann was determined not to become a two-time footnote on Derek Jeter’s hit list.
The big right-hander gave up Jeter’s 2,998th hit but little else, B.J. Upton homered and drove in three runs, and the Tampa Bay Rays beat the New York Yankees 5-1 on Thursday night to start strong in a long stretch of games against their biggest division rivals.
Back in September 2009, Niemann allowed Jeter’s 2,721st career hit -- which tied Lou Gehrig for the Yankees record. That was on his mind in this game as he held the New York captain to a first-inning double.
“He already tied one record off me,” Niemann said. “I knew I already had that one under my belt, so I didn’t want him to have any more milestones off me for a while.”
Ben Zobrist homered, tripled and singled for Tampa Bay, which tagged Bartolo Colon early in one of the worst outings of his surprising comeback season. Evan Longoria had an RBI single and the Rays won the first of 11 straight games against New York and Boston, the two teams they trail in the AL East.
“I really believe it brings out the best in us. We were really up for that game tonight,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s like playing the first game of a playoff series.”
The Yankees fell out of first place by a half-game when the Red Sox beat Baltimore.
With a chance to hit for the cycle in the ninth, Zobrist walked for the second time in the game. The leadoff man reached safely in all five plate appearances.
Jeter is trying to become the 28th major leaguer -- and first with the Yankees -- to reach 3,000 hits, one of baseball’s biggest milestones. He doubled on Niemann’s first pitch, then grounded out his next four times up and ended the night two short.
With two runners on, Jeter made the last out of the game on a bouncer to third against ex-Yankee Kyle Farnsworth.
“After the first one, I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t think it was attainable today,” Jeter said. “Early on, I thought I’d get a few.”
Rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson pitches for the Rays on Friday night.
Niemann (4-4) went a season-high 71/3 innings, yielding only a homer by Robinson Cano in the sixth. The 6-foot-9, 260-pound righty gave up six hits and walked two, improving to 3-0 in four starts since missing six weeks with a strained lower back.
Before going on the disabled list, he was 1-4 with a 5.74 ERA in six starts.
“Him getting that deep in the game was really big for us. The Yankees have a tendency to wear out bullpens,” Maddon said. “That was Jeff Niemann prior to the injury last year. That’s what I saw.”
Colon (6-4) entered 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA in his past four starts, but he ran into trouble right away in his second outing since coming off the disabled list (strained left hamstring).
The 38-year-old right-hander allowed five runs and a season-high 10 hits in 52/3 innings, dropping to 9-3 in 19 starts against Tampa Bay. He also matched a season high with four walks.
“He didn’t have his good fastball. He didn’t have the command he usually has,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “He just wasn’t sharp tonight and you’re going to run through starts like that.”
Needing three to reach the plateau Thursday in the opener of a four-game series that leads into the All-Star break, it appeared a few things were lined up in Jeter’s favor.
Jeter began the night 5-for-9 (.556) in his career against Niemann, including three hits on the night he tied Gehrig. And the New York captain got off to another rousing start in this one.
With a host of friends and family members in attendance, including his parents, Jeter smacked the first pitch he saw into left-center for a double, bringing a roar from the sellout crowd of 47,787.
Charged-up fans rose to their feet and cameras flashed for each subsequent at-bat, but Jeter couldn’t come through again and finished 1 for 5. Rays third baseman Sean Rodriguez made two nice plays to help deny Jeter.
“Everyone knows what’s going on. There’s no secret,” Niemann said. “You really kind of have to bear down because no one wants that to be them.”