ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays are willing to defend their honor. Their division title, maybe not so much.
Wednesday's 6-2 loss meant they lost the series and dropped 7½ games behind the first-place Yankees, though the Rays continued to spew confidence afterward that they can catch them over the 60 remaining games and win the AL East.
"Absolutely," manager Joe Maddon said. "We're right there with them. I think the two teams are really closely matched."
"They have a lot of weaknesses," pitcher Matt Garza said. "They have a lot of strengths, too. But we've just got to keep grinding it out. They've been hot, and hot teams turn cold. And cold teams turn hot. So we'll see how it turns out."
The Rays (55-47) weren't too convincing on the field Wednesday, shut down and shut out over eight innings by a sizzling Joba Chamberlain, and unable to contain the Yankees, who grabbed the early lead and built on it with three homers after an increasingly rare pregame visit from owner George Steinbrenner.
"The Boss was in town today," outfielder Nick Swisher said, "so we really didn't have a choice."
Chamberlain delivered what both clubhouses said may have been his best outing, allowing the Rays just three singles. Garza, not as sharp as in his Friday night duel with the Jays' Roy Halladay, allowed a season-high eight hits and three runs over seven innings.
He got a little excited — like when he flung Hideki Matsui's bat toward the dugout — but he also showed the most spunk.
Noting the Yankees had thrown in on and hit Evan Longoria on Monday, Garza acknowledged retaliating by hitting Mark Teixeira an inning after Chamberlain threw at Longoria's head and knocked him down in the fourth.
"I just kind of got tired of people brushing him back," Garza said. "It's about time someone made a statement. They did it on Monday night and we didn't do anything, they didn't do it too much (Tuesday) and (Chamberlain) did it again tonight.
"I hate to be that guy, but someone had to take a stand and say, 'You know, we're tired of it.' You can go after our best guy, well, we'll make some noise too, and that's what happened."
Longoria called it part of the game but didn't like the location of the pitch, and he appreciated Garza having his back — "You would hope everybody would do that." (He also retaliated on his own with a two-run homer in the ninth.) Teixeira said he didn't have a problem with it. Chamberlain didn't seem to care.
"That's just the game, man," he said. "Longoria is great, there's no getting around it. He has, like, 22 homers already or something, so you just have to be aggressive with him. If that's what he feels, he did what he needed to do, and at the end of the day, we won the ball game. And that's really all that matters."
In a way, he's right. And with little activity expected before Friday's nonwaiver trade deadline, Maddon said the challenge of making up the ground on the Yankees (who have won 11 of 13 since the All-Star break) — or at least catching the Red Sox, whom they trail by four games in the wild-card race — is right in front of them.
"The guys that are here have to do it," he said. "I believe in them. I said at the beginning of the season, I thought as a group it was a better group overall than what we had last year, and I still stand by that.
"We just have to get it out of the group that's here. And it's in there. It's definitely in there."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.