TORONTO — For two teams that are almost certainly headed to the postseason, the Rays and Yankees insist they still have a lot to play for — specifically the American League East title, and the resulting homefield advantage should they meet again in the next round.
And the key is how they're going to play against each other, with a three-game series starting tonight at Tropicana Field, followed by a four-game set next week at Yankee Stadium.
"We need to win every game we can, that's for sure, because the Yankees don't lose a whole lot," said Rays lefty David Price, who starts tonight in a marquee matchup with CC Sabathia. "When we play them, we need to step up, play some good games and try to get a lead."
Both teams lost Sunday, which left the Yankees a half-game ahead though even with 56 losses as New York — which was swept by the Rangers — has played one more game.
"They're all big now," Yankees captain Derek Jeter said in Texas. "We have 19 games left, we're basically tied and that's the team we're tied with. We don't have to worry about what another team is doing or look at any scoreboards. We control what happens."
The key, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said, is defending their home turf: The Rays are 3-3 against the Yankees at the Trop, 3-2 in New York.
"We've got to win the games at home, that's the biggest thing," he said. "And if we can go there and win two out of four, or three out of four, that would be huge for us.
"But I'm sure they're looking at it the same way; you have to come in and try to win two out of three in someone else's ballpark if you want to have success, if you want to win a division."
Though it would take a major collapse for either team not to advance, the level of play is expected to be intense.
"I'm definitely planning on it being very intense (tonight)," Rays centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "Probably the closest to playoff atmosphere we're going to get right now."
The pitching matchup has that kind of October feel, too, with a pair of aces: Sabathia, who is seeking his 20th win; and Price, who is going for his 18th.
To some, it's a pairing of the two leading candidates for the AL Cy Young Award, though Seattle's Felix Hernandez probably wouldn't agree.
Price prefers to look at it as a potential preview of something grander. "I like Game 1 of the ALCS a little bit better," he said. "But I guess it's both."
Though both Sabathia and Price insisted they were more concerned with the hitters they'll be opposing than each other, it's clear they have mutual respect.
Said Price: "I talk to him every now and then, he'll hit me up, but no, I don't view this any differently. I don't have to face him."
Said Sabathia: "I'm just trying to treat it like anything else. Every game for us right now is big, trying to win this division."
The seven head-to-head games over the next 11 days should tell a lot.
"It's a big series, I don't know if it gets any bigger," Longoria said. "Both of us are in a drivers' seat — they're in a better seat than we are, but we are in good position to get into the playoffs one way or the other. But our goal, the division, is still within reach, still within close reach."