ST. PETERSBURG -- The Yankees have attempted to downplay their late-summer swoon by offering this scenario: If anyone had promised them a September lead in the tough American League East, every player on the team would have gladly signed on the dotted line.
That may be true, but there are no guarantees now. The Yankees' advantage in the division race dwindled to a single game on Monday, as New York opened a crucial road trip by dropping a 4-3 decision to the Rays at Tropicana Field.
"It's not a good feeling," the Yankees' Robinson Cano said. "You lose some games, and you just want to win games. You don't want to put your head down. We've just got to turn the page; just be ready for tomorrow."
That may be more difficult for Cano than others; the second baseman felt discomfort in his left hip trying to flag down the go-ahead hit, Chris Gimenez's soft eighth-inning dribbler off losing pitcher David Robertson, as it scooted through the right side of the infield.
The Yankees do not expect Cano's injury to force him to miss more than a day, but now that they've seen what was once a 10-game lead in the AL East trimmed to a single contest by virtue of the Orioles' win over the Blue Jays, off-days are a luxury the Yankees can't afford.
"I would love to keep the lead," manager Joe Girardi said. "When you win the division, you don't really care what you win by. You'd just love to keep the lead. That's important."
In the decisive eighth inning, the Rays mounted a two-out rally as Ryan Roberts singled and stole second base before racing home on Gimenez's roller to the right side. Cano didn't think he needed to dive for the ball, but the grabbing of his left hip prevented him from getting his glove down.
"It's just unfortunate that we weren't able to get the out right there," Robertson said. "It wasn't a hard-hit ball; it found a hole, and that's just part of the game. There's always going to be hits like that in the game, and today was a crucial one that cost us a run."
Fernando Rodney shut the Yankees down in the ninth inning, including strikeouts of Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson, to pick up his 41st save. Rodriguez went 1-for-4, rejoining the swooning Bombers after recovering from a fractured left hand.
"We've all got to do what we do," Rodriguez said. "The way you come out of things like this is by doing the little things, and if we focus on doing the little things and become masters at those, we don't have to worry about big things. Hopefully, we're on our way."
The Rays' James Shields outlasted CC Sabathia in a matchup of top-flight starters, as each hurler permitted three runs -- Shields over eight frames and Sabathia in seven.
One start after he gave back a pair of leads to the Blue Jays, Sabathia was especially irked by his inability to hold New York's one-run lead in the fifth inning.
"It's frustrating, especially after the last outing, not being able to hold the lead," Sabathia said. "Today, I've just got to be a lot better than I was."
B.J. Upton walked to start the inning, and Ben Zobrist followed with a single. A double-steal set up Evan Longoria's game-tying groundout, as shortstop Derek Jeter thought about throwing home but instead went for the sure out at first base.
"I looked up, but I didn't think we had it," Jeter said. "We maybe, possibly could have had a chance, but in that situation, that inning, you don't take a chance like that."
The Yankees fell into an early hole as Sabathia allowed a second-inning RBI single to Gimenez and Upton crushed a solo homer, his 17th, leading off the third.
It hasn't been a banner year for Sabathia, Girardi agreed, but the left-hander still offers the Yankees chances to win.
"We've seen him more dominating," Girardi said, adding, "What is he, 13-5 and he's missed two months? That's not too bad. It's not like his ERA is in the 4's."
New York charged back with three fourth-inning runs, as Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez and Russell Martin collected RBIs to build a lead that wouldn't hold.
"Like I've said, it's up to us to go out and play well, and I didn't help us out today," Sabathia said.
The Yankees' clubhouse was near-silent after the defeat, as players like Sabathia spoke in hushed tones and searched for optimistic ways to frame their situation.
"Unfortunately, you come in here after we lose and it's kind of quiet because people don't like to lose," Jeter said. "But before the games, we're not panicking. We're playing with a lot of confidence."
It is true that the Yankees would rather hold this one-game lead than no lead at all, but as they continue this tough swing against the Rays and O's, the chances of finishing this trip looking up in the division are beginning to seem more realistic by the day.
"It's baseball," Sabathia said. "We've got to go out and keep playing. It's a tough game, but we still have a lead. It's all up to us, and hopefully we can turn it around."