ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - As they ascended the stairs leading from their dugout to the clubhouse after batting practice, Yankee players found a surprise visitor waiting for them.
Johnny Damon said Steinbrenner "looked like he was in great spirits," and what he watched only could have lifted them as Joba Chamberlain turned in his third straight stellar start since the All-Star break in leading the Yankees to a 6-2 victory over the Rays at Tropicana Field.
The Yankees (62-39) moved 3½ games ahead of the Red Sox and 7½ in front of the Rays.
Chamberlain, matching a career-long outing, shut out the Rays over eight innings. Chamberlain said he felt some nerves with the Boss in the building but it didn't show as he allowed only three hits.
"It's good to see him here," said Chamberlain, who improved to 7-2 but, more significantly, 3-0 with a 0.83 ERA since the break. "It's definitely good to get a win when he's in the house. I heard stories about when he was here - it was always a little bit nerve-racking so I got a little bit of nerves knowing he was in the house. But it's always great to have him here and to support us."
Derek Jeter, who tripled and scored in the first, said Steinbrenner still has a presence, carrying himself with the "same attitude" he's always had.
"It's always good to spend a little time with him," Jeter said. "He doesn't come around as much as he used to but it's always good to see him."
Teixeira said seeing Steinbrenner in the clubhouse made everyone do a double-take.
"We didn't know he was coming," said Teixeira, who singled home Jeter in the first inning and hit his 26th homer in the ninth to make it 6-0. "It's a very pleasant surprise, especially with the win. When he's at the ballpark you want to get a win."
Girardi credited some of the performance to Steinbrenner.
"He's always been a guy who gets the most out of his people," Girardi said. "I used to love when he came around when I played. I always loved seeing him. I think the guys were excited to see him and I think today it showed."
Of course, Chamberlain had the most to do with the victory, throwing his fastball, slider and curve with equal efficiency and, from the Rays standpoint, devastation. Chamberlain worked quickly and, unlike many of his outings in the season's first half, ahead of most hitters.
"Great," Chamberlain said in characterizing his secondary pitches. "I threw them early for strikes, I threw them late. It was just in and out with the fastball that allowed everything else to be that much better."
Chamberlain, who struck out five and walked two, retired the first eight hitters he faced before allowing a two-out single in the third to Jason Bartlett. He was at 49 pitches through four innings and he threw 101 on the night, 65 for strikes.
"He's growing up before our eyes," Teixeira said. "I love seeing the progress he's made."
Said Damon: "If we can see that all the time, you've got a guy like Roger Clemens out there. The way he pitched tonight, he was aggressive . . . but the pace of the game was the most important."
The eight innings increased Chamberlain's season total to 1102/3 and his innings limit is thought to be in the range of 150. Girardi, regarding what's to come, would say only, "We'll worry about that bridge when we get there."
Asked if his innings limit is only for the regular season, Girardi didn't budge.
"I don't think we're ready to share that," he said with a smile.