There is no perfect formula for beating the Yankees. Let's acknowledge that from the start.
They score more runs than anyone else, have baseball's most expensive rotation, perhaps the greatest closer in history and they don't make many errors. So, yes, even on their worst days, beating the Yankees can be a chore.
Since the beginning of the 2009 season, they have at least a 14-game lead on every other team in baseball, won themselves a World Series in October and seem entirely capable of spraying champagne again this fall. So, no, it is not easy to find a weakness in New York.
And yet, in a three-hour, six-minute window on Sunday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Rays played the kind of game that should make every self-respecting Yankee fan apprehensive. In fact, during the three-game series at Tropicana Field, the Rays played a type of ball that should make the Yankees themselves uneasy about days to come in October.
For the Rays rolled past the Yankees 3-0 on Sunday with a game plan that is pretty difficult to beat. Excellent starting pitching, tight defense and an opportunistic offense. And it was not a fluke, because this is precisely how this roster was constructed.
Which is how a team with a leadoff hitter batting .226, with a cleanup hitter with five home runs, with three other guys hitting below .240 could soundly beat the greatest collection of paychecks in the majors.
"This is the team we have to be. This is the team we are," manager Joe Maddon said. "So it comes down to execution vs. dollars. If you're going to spend dollars, then we're going to have to execute very, very well."
Obviously, it won't work every time. You can't expect a starting pitcher to be quite as brilliant as James Shields was on Sunday. And you can't anticipate Lance Berkman playing first base quite as horribly as he did, or Alex Rodriguez getting most of the afternoon off.
But the Rays played this way for most of the weekend. And they currently lead the season series with the Yankees six wins to five.
"We don't fear anybody," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "We know what we have here. We always feel like we have the better team when we step on the field. That's the only way to approach it."
Let's face it, the Rays will never have a lineup quite like New York's. The Yankees have a future Hall of Famer at shortstop, and another one next to him at third base. The second baseman is probably the American League MVP this season, and the first baseman is a beast.
They have six guys on that roster with at least one 30-homer season on the back of their baseball card. The Rays don't even have six guys with a 20-homer season.
"We have to be able to do three things. In descending order, pitching, defense and get the timely hit/speed," Maddon said. "We don't want a heavyweight fight with the gloves, going toe to toe with those guys. We need to jab and move."
The third inning on Sunday may be the perfect example. Of the five Rays hitters who came to the plate, only one hit the ball out of the infield. And yet Tampa Bay still scored two runs. The Yankees, on the other hand, scored seven runs in the series. And six came on home runs.
From time to time, you might outslug the Yankees. The Rays have done it themselves this season. But if you try that night after night, you're probably going to go home disappointed.
"They've got more power than we do, so they're probably waiting for that home run," Sunday's emergency first baseman Sean Rodriguez said. "(Saturday) they needed three home runs to beat us. How many did they hit today? And how many runs did they score?"
This is how a team of modest payroll can be one game behind a team spending nearly three times as much.
The Rays have put their resources in young starting pitching, excellent defense and a versatile lineup. It doesn't make for as much star power, but it's keeping Tampa Bay on New York's heels.
Just consider this weekend's trade deadline. New York gets Berkman, a guy who once hit 45 home runs in a season. The Yankees get Kerry Wood, a guy who once struck out 20 batters in a game. And Tampa Bay gets Chad Qualls, a guy with an ERA of 8.29.
But the name does not matter as much as the role a player fills on the roster. The Rays needed a guy in the bullpen who could get ground balls, and that's what Qualls does.
In his first appearance on Sunday, Qualls threw five pitches to Berkman and got a double-play grounder.
It may not be fancy, but it seems to be working.
Just ask the Yankees.
John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.