In defeat, the Rays looked farther away from first than at any juncture this season. Yes, the calendar says July 29, but 7 1/2 games would be a significant margin for any team to make up in 60 contests, which is how many remain on Tampa Bay's schedule. Of those games, the Rays have only seven matchups left with the Yankees -- all in September, four in New York, including a makeup of a rainout, and three in St. Petersburg during the final weekend of the regular season.
Adding to the difficulties of playing catch-up ball is the fact that 33 of the Rays' final 60 games will be against teams with records better than .500.
"At this stage of the year, [there are] still a lot of games," said Evan Longoria, who hit his 21st home run of the season in the ninth inning off reliever Brian Bruney. "We've got to take every team in every series -- as we did the Yankees -- they're all important.
"We know in the clubhouse what we have to do. It's no easy task. We understand what we have to accomplish and the ground we have to cover. But I feel like we're ready, and as long as we keep our minds positive and just focus on the day-to-day things, I think we're going to be all right."
Derek Jeter proved to be a harbinger of bad news for the Rays on Wednesday night when he tripled to right field to lead off the game, and he scored one out later on Mark Teixeira's RBI single to put the Yankees up, 1-0. Thanks largely to a lights-out pitching performance by starter Joba Chamberlain, the Bombers would not lose the lead.
The burly right-hander retired the first eight hitters who stepped to the plate, and he faced just 28 hitters in the eight innings he worked. After holding Tampa Bay scoreless on three hits, Chamberlain moved to 7-2 on the season.
"Chamberlain may have, for me, in my eyes, that might have been the best I've seen him," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "That was his best fastball command I've seen to this point, and he actually utilized it more than the last time, when I thought he was more of a breaking-ball pitcher. I thought he did a nice job."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi agreed with Maddon's assessment.
"I think this was his best performance," Girardi said. "It was an important game for us against a very tough-hitting ballclub. He shut down a very tough club. He was outstanding."
Matt Garza started for Tampa Bay and pitched well enough to win, but given the way Chamberlain stifled the Rays' hitters on Wednesday night, that would have been a difficult proposition for any pitcher.
Garza allowed three earned runs in seven innings to take his eighth loss of the season against seven wins. Of his foibles, he allowed a solo home run to Robinson Cano in the sixth when he was ahead in the count, 1-2. Cano's 16th home run of the season put the Yankees up, 3-0.
"They hit them where we weren't," Garza said. "The only pitch I regret throwing is -- not even regret the pitch, regret the location -- is the pitch to Cano. I hung a slider, and he did what you're supposed to do. He hit that ball about 400 feet. Joba pitched [well] -- probably the best outing of his career. We just got to keep digging. It was a big series, we took a game, but we're in a deeper hole. ... We've got a grind ahead of us, and we've got two months to do it. So I'm looking forward to these last two months."
And as good as Chamberlain was, his command wasn't perfect, sailing a pitch over the head of Longoria in the fourth inning, leading Garza to hit Teixeira in the right shoulder with a 1-1 fastball as retaliation in the fifth.
"It's about time someone made a statement," Garza told reporters. "I hate to be that guy, but someone had to take a stand and say we're tired of it. You go after our best guy. Well, we'll make some noise, too, and that's what happened."
"If that's what he feels, he did what he needed to do," Chamberlain said. "At the end of the day, we won the ballgame, and that's really all that matters."
The Yankees added three runs after Garza's departure, while the Rays' offense finally showed some life in the ninth against Bruney via a Carl Crawford triple and Longoria's home run.
By winning on Wednesday night, the Yankees moved ahead in the season series (6-5) against the Rays. Nevertheless, Maddon feels good about the way his team matches up vs. New York.
"We're right there with them," Maddon said. "I think the two teams are really closely matched. I just would like to see us play them next time with our offense being a little more productive. I thought we pitched pretty well that first game. We just have to generate more offense. They are pitching well, they have good pitching."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. Bryan Hoch contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.