ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The Yankees' dugout exploded, gray-clad players tumbling out of it as if they had seen a walk-off homer win something far more important than a regular-season game.

But the Yankees, beaten up over the weekend by the Blue Jays, could be excused for their enthusiasm. It was warranted.

After being held hitless for seven innings, they found themselves one out from defeat and were facing the prospect of falling four games behind Toronto when Alex Rodriguez and Slade Heathcott -- yes, Slade Heathcott -- saved the day.

A-Rod lined a two-out RBI double to right-center off closer Brad Boxberger to tie it in the ninth inning before Heathcott's opposite-field three-run homer sent the Yankees to a 4-1 victory over the Rays Monday night in front of 11,940 at Tropicana Field.

Was the hit by September call-up Heathcott -- No. 72 in your program -- the biggest of the season for the Yankees?

"For sure,'' said CC Sabathia, who allowed three singles in 62/3 shutout innings in his best start of the season. "I think if you just look at our dugout, the way they reacted, it was definitely the biggest hit of the season."

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Added Brett Gardner, who walked and stole second against Boxberger to set up A-Rod's tying double: "We were pretty fired up. That's probably the most excited we've been all year. Every game from here on out's pretty important."

The Yankees (79-64) moved within three games of the idle Blue Jays with 19 to play. Toronto begins a series Tuesday night against Atlanta -- a team that has lost 46 of its last 60 games.

The Yankees, who hold the first wild card, remained three games ahead of the Rangers and four games ahead of the Twins.

Held hitless by Erasmo Ramirez for seven innings, the Yankees fell behind 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth on Logan Forsythe's two-out RBI double off the top of the leftfield wall against lefty Justin Wilson.

Boxberger, who has 34 saves, came on for the ninth. Pinch hitter Dustin Ackley singled for the Yankees' second hit before Jacoby Ellsbury extended his slump to 0-for-21 by grounding into a 3-6 double play. But Gardner walked on four pitches, stole second and scored the tying run when Rodriguez ripped a 1-and-1 pitch into the gap in right-center for his 82nd RBI.

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The hit was Rodriguez's 3,060th, tying him with new Hall of Famer Craig Biggio for 21st in MLB history.

"Him stealing the base changes my whole at-bat," A-Rod said. "Now you're not thinking extra-base hit, you're thinking just be a good hitter, get a base hit. With his speed, you know you're going to tie the game."

After Brian McCann was intentionally walked, Heathcott -- the Yankees' 2009 first-round pick whose career has mostly been defined by injuries and who actually was released last offseason -- batted for the first time in a major-league game since May 27.

The lefthanded-hitting Heathcott, 24, wasted no time, swinging at the first pitch and launching a 90-mph fastball just over the leftfield wall to set off the dugout celebration. Said Heathcott, "Cloud 9. Just awesome. Got a good pitch to hit and I put a pretty good barrel on it.''

A-Rod called Heathcott's hit "a big signature Yankee moment for him."

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Heathcott was 6-for-17 for the Yankees when a quadriceps injury sidelined him in May. How difficult was it for him to get his first major-league at-bat in 31/2 months in that situation?

"I think it's really difficult because it's in the middle of a race and he has not been here in a while,'' Joe Girardi said. "To be able to do that off a really good closer, it's pretty amazing.''

Andrew Miller struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth for his 33rd save.

Ramirez, who came in 10-5 with a 3.90 ERA, took a no-hitter into the eighth before Carlos Beltran led off with a ground smash off first baseman Richie Shaffer for the first hit. The Yankees wound up with three errors and only four hits, but it was enough.

"It changes quickly. That's the thing about this game, emotions can change quickly," Girardi said of the roller-coaster late innings. "To be able to do it with two outs in the ninth is pretty special."