ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. That commanding AL East lead the New York Yankees held not so long ago has officially been razed.
Welcome to the hottest division in baseball: A first-place deadlock between New York and the Baltimore Orioles with the Tampa Bay Rays suddenly 1.5 games behind both teams and a month of baseball still to play.
Who could have imagined this back on July 18 when Tampa Bay trailed the first-place Yankees by 10.5 games?
Well, maybe the Rays themselves a team that surged from 9.5 games back last September to reach the post-season.
The small but elated crowd of 17,652 inside Tropicana Field Tuesday night had plenty to cheer about in a 5-2 victory over the Yankees and the only gathering pulling for Tampa Bay just as hard was north of the border in the Orioles' dugout.
While the Rays were riding a sensational pitching effort by Alex Cobb to a second straight win over New York buoyed by back-to-back homers from Desmond Jennings and B.J. Upton at the top of the order Baltimore was busy bashing the Blue Jays 12-0 in Toronto to pull even with the Bombers.
It marked the first time since the start of play on June 11 84 days in all that the Yankees did not own sole possession of first in the division. And the Rays have now made up nine games on New York in the last six weeks, within striking distance of the East lead and only 1.5 games behind in the wild card race as well.
If this is a preview of what's to come this month, buckle up. The Rays will try to pull off a sweep of the sputtering Yankees Wednesday night at 7:10, when rookie left-hander Matt Moore (10-8, 3.58) faces right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (12-10, 3.04) in the thick of a race that could take any number of unexpected turns.
"It just seems to be happening on an annual basis now," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "It's kind of interesting this time of the year. Everybody knows everybody else 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 of feel to them."
The Rays are in a position to control their own destiny over the next 10 games: after tomorrow's series finale with the Yankees, they host AL West leader Texas for three games, then go on the road next week for a three-game set in Baltimore and three more in the Bronx against the Yankees.
The same holds true for Baltimore and New York, with a four-game series between the division co-leaders starting Thursday in Camden Yards. Plenty can still happen, which is why there was no overtly celebratory mood in Tampa Bay's clubhouse after the game (other than their traditional closed-to-the-media dance celebration they hold after every win).
"I think we said from the start of spring training this is how it was going to be," said Upton, whose solo shot to deep center in the fifth gave him the team lead in homers with 18. "I know a lot of people on the outside kind of wrote it off when we were 10-and-a-half games out. But I think all of us in here have 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.
"So we've kind of kept our cool and kept our heads and been playing good baseball and here we are, finding ourselves a game-and-a-half out in September. It's still a long way to go."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi, on the other hand, didn't do such a good job keeping his cool. He was ejected in the fourth inning by home plate umpire Tony Randazzo, after center fielder Chris Dickerson was called out on strikes to end the inning just as second baseman Jayson Nix slid safely into second. Girardi was tossed for the fourth time this season while standing in his dugout, and then raced onto the field to angrily jaw face-to-face with Randazzo.
Whatever set him off wasn't clear, and he refused to elaborate after the game.
"I'm not going to comment on that, so we can just skip that," he said. "So everybody knows: I'm not going to comment on the Randazzo thing."
Cobb, on the other hand, didn't let himself get rattled when Robinson Cano gave the Yankees a quick 2-0 lead in the first, smashing a two-out offering over the left-field wall. It was hardly the start envisioned by the second-year right-hander, who had retired the first two batters before walking Nick Swisher and surrendering Cano's 29th homer of the year.
"Those were just two mental mistakes I can't walk Swisher and put a guy on to get to Cano," he said. "And throwing him two fastballs, belt-high, that's what he's dreaming off."
But Cobb settled down after the miscues and eventually retired 14 of the last 15 batters he faced, including 10 straight in one stretch. He pitched seven innings in all, allowing just four hits, with one walk and five strikeouts, improving to 9-8 with a 4.28 ERA.
"It's awesome," he said. "All day it was exciting. It was the closest thing I've had to a playoff game. It was a lot of fun to go out in that environment and pitch well you try to keep an even-keel throughout the whole season. But there was definitely an added focus-factor to each and every pitch."
It helped that the Rays struck right back against Yankees' starter Freddy Garcia in the bottom of the first, when leadoff hitter Jennings drew a walk and two-hole hitter Upton worked the count to 3-0. But instead of taking on the next pitch, Upton ripped a shot just inside the third base line for a double, easily scoring Jennings to cut the margin to 2-1.
Then, in the bottom of the third, Ben Zobrist walked with two outs. That brought up cleanup hitter Evan Longoria, who proceeded to launch a 2-2 pitch into the seats in left-center to put the Rays ahead to stay, 3-2. For the record, the Rays are now 19-9 and batting .278 since Longoria returned to the lineup after missing 85 games with a hamstring tear. They've also outscored opponents 138-76 in that span.
And they displayed more of that new firepower in the fifth, when Jennings led off with a towering shot over the left-field wall and Upton followed with a rocket to deep center to make it 5-2. It marked the first time they've hit consecutive homers at the Trop since 2010 when Zobrist and Carlos Pena did.
And Upton kept on rolling. Since Aug. 1, he's hit .274 with 20 extra base hits and 25 RBI a distinct improvement over his .244 batting average the first four months of the season.
"You know what, it was just another home run," he said. "I'm just glad I could put a run on the board and give us a little cushion there."
But there are no more cushions at the moment in the division, especially for the Yankees, who have lost three in a row and five of their last six. And they've struggled mightily on the road against the Rays, who have won 11 of their last 12 home games against New York since July 21, 2011.
Team captain Derek Jeter tried to keep his team's current woes in perspective.
"Teams struggle at times, it's contagious both in good ways and bad ways," he said. "We're slipping a little bit, but hopefully we'll be able to break out of it tomorrow. We still have games left. We have to find ways to win. That's the bottom line. Nothing has changed."
Definitely not in the AL East, where another frantic race to the finish is once again unfolding.