ST. PETERSBURG — Alex Cobb did some pretty good pitching for the Rays on Tuesday. And Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and Desmond Jennings took care of the swinging.
But the bigger story at the half-empty Trop on Tuesday was the squirming taking place in the opposing dugout.
The Rays' 5-2 win completed the Yankees' staggering freefall, as what was a 10-game American League East lead on the morning of July 19 is now gone. The Orioles won again Tuesday to pull even, and the Rays (75-61) are just 1½ games back.
"You expect a team like that to get hot, but you also know they're going to cool down at some point," Longoria said. "You can't plan or expect they're going to cool down as much as they have."
With no other choice, the Yankees, mired in a 19-25 run, are hoping a turnaround is coming soon.
"Teams struggle at times, it's contagious, both in good ways and bad," captain Derek Jeter said. "We're slipping a little bit, but hopefully we'll be able to break out of it (tonight). We still have games left, we have to find ways to win."
The Rays, who have gone 28-16, are finding plenty.
Tuesday, one key was Cobb, the 24-year-old pitching in his first September and showing the Rays, at least on this night, they don't have too much to worry about with Jeff Niemann hurt again.
Cobb, as he tends to, struggled a bit early, giving up a two-out walk then a homer to Robinson Cano in the first.
But Rays manager Joe Maddon told catcher Jose Molina to force Cobb into a quick rhythm after that — so he wouldn't overthink things — and as also tends to happen, Cobb got better as the game went on, working seven solid before turning it over to Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney, who finished for his major league-leading 42nd save.
After putting the first two on in the third, Cobb retired 14 of his 15 remaining batters, including his last 10. And he did so efficiently, throwing only 32 pitches over his final three innings (15-9-8).
"It's the closest thing I've had to a playoff game," Cobb said. "It was a lot of fun to go out in that environment and go out and pitch well."
His mates helped before 17,652 at the Trop. Upton doubled in a run in the first, swinging 3-and-0 to lace a double down the line to score Jennings. Then Longoria had the big hit, a two-out, two-run homer in the third, his fourth in his past nine games, to put them up 3-2. Then Jennings and Upton hit back-to-back homers in the fifth, Upton adding the team home run lead, at 18, to a stat line that also includes the most RBIs (63) and stolen bases (27). "He's just not missing on any pitches," Maddon said.
It was the fourth time this season the Rays hit back-to-back homers.
The Rays are familiar with big leads vanishing, having run down the collapsing Red Sox last September. And Maddon has seen it from the view the Yankees have now, as a coach on the 1995 Angels team that was caught by the Mariners.
"It's not easy to walk into that room when you've had that kind of a lead and it kind of goes away," he said. "Because you get to the point where you imagine the worst as opposed to the best."
Not, of course, that the Rays feel sorry for them in the least.
"We've got to get them while they're down right now," Longoria said, "because you don't want to wake a sleeping dog."