The Tampa Bay Rays have maintained for some time that they are not just playing for a wild card spot, that catching the division-leading Yankees is within their grasp.
On Tuesday, they inched closer to the Yankees with a 5-2 victory in front of 17,652 at Tropicana Field.
The win, the Rays fourth straight and second against the Yankees in as many days, moved them to within 1 ½ games of the Bombers.
Of course, the Orioles beat the Rays to the top of the division by pulling into a tie with the Yankees after a 12-0 victory in Toronto, making this the first time since June 11 that New York has not held sole possession of the AL East lead.
The Rays, who learned something last September about making a charge at a playoff spot, are doing it this season by winning 19 of their last 30 games and 24 of their last 36.
"We’ve kind of kept our cool, kept our heads," said B.J. Upton, who drove in a pair of runs in the victory. "We’re playing good baseball and we’re a game-and-a-half out in September."
The Rays trailed the Yankees by 10 ½ games on July 18.
"I think we said from the start of spring training, we said this is how it was going to be," Upton said. "I know a lot of people on the outside wrote it off when we’re 10 ½ games out, but I think all of us around here have been around long enough to know this is a long season, a lot of things can happen, especially with this second wild card in place."
But the Rays are not thinking wild card. They are thinking pennant.
"We’ve felt it all year," winning pitcher Alex Cobb said. "We’ve never felt out of it. We’ve never felt too far behind. It’s fun to be able to see that in the standings, but we’re not going to get carried away with ourselves."
When asked what can be expected during the final weeks of the season, Rays manager Joe Maddon answered, "A lot of the same."
The Rays play the Yankees four more times, beginning with tonight’s series finale. They have six games remaining with the Orioles, including the final three games of the regular season.
"It seems to be happening on an annual basis now," Maddon said. "It’s kind of interesting this time of year. Everybody knows everybody can beat each other. I love the energy of the games. I know it’s not playoff time yet, but they definitely have that kind feel to them."
Cobb won his fifth straight decision after holding the Yankees to just two runs on four hits in his seven innings. The runs came in the first inning when Robinson Cano followed a two-out walk to Nick Swisher with an opposite field home run to left field.
Cobb, who has a reputation of pitching better as the game moves along, did just that. He retired the last 10 batters he faced and needed only 10 pitches to set the Yankees down in order in his final inning.
Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney took it from there, with Rodney earning his major league-leading 42nd save of the season.
Cobb was backed by an offense that hit three home runs.
Evan Longoria followed a two-out walk to Ben Zobrist in the third inning with his 10th home run of the season to give the Rays a 3-2 lead.
The lead was extended to 5-2 in the fifth when Desmond Jennings and Upton hit back-to-back home runs.
It was the 10th loss in the last 14 games for the Yankees.
"Teams struggle at times, it’s contagious both in good ways and in bad," Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter said. "We’re slipping a little bit, but hopefully we’ll be able to break out of it (tonight). We still have games left. We have to find ways to win. That’s the bottom line. Nothing’s changed."
The Yankees are not a healthy team, Maddon said after the game, noting that Mark Teixeira (strained calf) has not played in either of the first two games of this season, Curtis Granderson (hamstring) started only Tuesday’s game and Alex Rodriguez just returned from the disabled list
"They’re not 100 percent healthy," Maddon said. "We were not early in the season, also, so it’s the ebb and flow of the year."
Still, Maddon said, the Yankees are the Yankees.
"I so do not take anything for granted," he said.