ST. PETERSBURG -- The 10-game advantage that the Yankees once trumpeted in the American League East is now just a memory, and they must now contend with some unwelcome company at the top of the standings.
The Yankees lost their grip on sole possession of first place for the first time since June 11, suffering a 5-2 loss to the Rays on Tuesday. After 84 unchallenged days at the top, New York has been joined in first place by the surging Orioles.
"Nothing changes; we play everybody," Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. "How many games do we have left? If we win all of them, we're good, right? If that's the case, you don't have to worry about anyone else."
The Yankees have 27 games remaining, but given their recent history, there is reason to fret. The Yankees are 19-25 over their last 44 games, wheezing to the finish line as Baltimore sailed to a 12-0 victory over the Blue Jays up at Rogers Centre in Toronto on Tuesday.
What's more, the Rays smell blood in the water. They concluded business on Tuesday just 1 1/2 games out of the top spot in the division, riding a strong seven-inning outing by Alex Cobb and home runs from Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings and B.J. Upton.
"We've got to hit; that's the bottom line," manager Joe Girardi said. "It's hard to win if you don't hit. We've had a tough time scoring runs the last couple weeks. That's been part of our problem."
New York held a 10-game lead over Baltimore on July 18, when a playoff berth appeared a virtual certainty. Since then, the Orioles have gone 29-15 and the Rays are 28-16, making the outlook much more murky.
"We've got great talent on this team," said Robinson Cano, who slugged a two-run homer in the loss. "Nobody wanted to be in this situation, but this is part of the game. We've got to go out there, forget about what happened in the past and start from zero tomorrow."
Upton said that the Rays aren't exactly shocked to see the Yankees faltering. After all, they watched the Red Sox do it in epic, historic fashion fewer than 12 months ago.
"We said from Spring Training that this was how it was going to be," Upton said. "A lot of people on the outside wrote it off when we were 10 1/2 games out, but I think everyone around here has been around long enough to know that this is a long season and a lot of things can happen, especially with the second Wild Card in place."
Garcia turned in an ineffective outing, permitting five runs in 5 1/3 innings, keeping the Yankees in the game until Jennings and Upton teed off for back-to-back homers in the fifth inning.
Evan Longoria smashed a two-run homer off Garcia in the third inning, and Upton also had a first-inning RBI double off the soft-tossing Garcia, who was ahead of all three Rays batters before serving up their homers.
"That's my fault today," said Garcia, who walked four and struck out five. "I gave up five runs; we lost, 5-2. Like I say, I don't make the pitch when I need it, and that's why I got hurt."
The Yankees played the last five innings without Girardi, who was ejected by home-plate umpire Tony Randazzo for arguing a called third strike on Chris Dickerson in the fourth inning.
"I think [Girardi] just said to Tony, 'Please don't look in our dugout. That's when things are going to happen,'" hitting coach Kevin Long said.
Cano gave the Yankees a quick lead, bashing a homer in his first at-bat. But that was all the Yankees could manage off Cobb, falling into a pattern of flushing opportunities with runners in scoring position.
"We're not scoring a lot of runs, and we're giving up a few too many; that's the bottom line," Girardi said. "We're getting four or five hits a night, maybe six, and that's it. We do get some runs, but we don't tack on."
Indeed, the Yankees have been held to six hits or fewer in each of their last five games, their longest stretch since Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 1990, when they had a string of six such contests.
New York's best chance for more came in the third inning, as Jeter singled and Curtis Granderson was hit by a pitch, but Cobb struck out Nick Swisher and Cano hit into an inning-ending double play.
Cobb retired the last 10 batters he faced and 14 of his last 15. It was the type of performance that has the homer-happy Yankees pondering drastic changes; Long suggested that the club may try bunting more, using the Swisher at-bat in the third inning as an example.
"It's not desperation; it's about playing baseball," Long said. "In playoff baseball, Justin Verlander's out there and it's first and second. What are you going to do? That's the way it is."
Jeter offers that baseball is a long season of ups and downs, but when 162 games are reduced to 27, the schedule doesn't seem so forgiving. No matter, said Jeter, who insists the mindset must remain the same.
"We still have games left -- we have to find ways to win, and that's the bottom line," Jeter said. "Nothing has changed."
Except, of course, the landscape at the top of the division.