NEW YORK — The Rays trudged out of Yankee Stadium for the final time Sunday, an 8-4 loss capping a disappointing 3-6 road trip and slicing their American League East lead over Boston to a perilous one game.
They headed home for a week of intense games against the Red Sox and Twins that could culminate in the biggest (only!) celebration in franchise history, or further a September skid (4-8) that could extend the playoff races to the season's final week, or worse.
"We have to go and take care of homefield advantage, and if we do that, we pretty much secure our spot in the playoffs," veteran Cliff Floyd said. "So it's up to us.
"They're chasing us, but they want us bad. We've got to take care of it and make sure we don't give away what we worked so hard for. That would be a shame."
With 15 games left, with an opportunity to clarify the division race and a chance to clinch a playoff berth by the weekend, the Rays (88-59) are trying to keep their cool and maintain their season-long myopia.
"It's coming down to the wire," rookie Evan Longoria said. "Obviously, there's going to be some scoreboard-watching going on, especially from our standpoint never being in this situation (before). We're kind of like gritting our teeth and wondering how it's going to finish up, but I think we just need to keep taking it a day at a time."
Sunday's game didn't provide much impetus for the Rays. An ineffective Edwin Jackson allowed a first-inning grand slam to Alex Rodriguez. Then, after the Rays got three runs back on Fernando Perez's first big-league homer, he gave up a deflating two-run shot in the second to Jason Giambi. Phenom David Price made a dazzling debut that kept it close, and interesting, for a while, but the Rays never threatened.
"Once we got down early, it was more difficult to fight back," manager Joe Maddon said. "Last game, day game, it was kind of warm out there, all those factors were involved, and things weren't just going our way."
Being back at Tropicana Field should help. The Rays have the best home record in the majors (53-21), including a 6-0 mark against the Red Sox.
"I think there will be a revival (tonight)," Maddon said.
Their first challenge is the Red Sox. A three-game series starts tonight at the Trop, which will be crowded but, disappointing for the Rays, likely not sold out.
The Sox can sweep their way back into the division lead (or a tie with two wins). The Rays — who saw their lead cut to one-half game last week in Boston, then won the next two — anticipate an intense battle.
"They want to win the division bad," Floyd said. "We have to take it from them again. It's sad that we have to say it like that, because we're in first place, but they want what we have, so we just have to make sure they don't get it."
That's exactly the plan, Boston's Mike Lowell said in Boston. "We know we can still win the division, and I think that means a lot to the guys in our clubhouse," he said. "So yeah, we want to go down there and win the series."
After that are the Twins, whom the Rays lead by seven games in what could evolve into a battle the Rays don't want to be in for the wild card.
"We're going back home, and we've still got the lead, so we'll see what happens," Dioner Navarro said. "We feel really comfortable in front of our own crowds. I think we'll be in good shape."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.