ST. PETERSBURG — The signs weren't good for Sunday to turn out well for the Rays.
There was this: Their lone run in the 6-1 loss to the Marlins coming on a sacrifice fly — to the second baseman.
Then this: Jeff Niemann losing for the first time at Tropicana Field since May 2 — of last season.
And by the end of the afternoon, this: After sitting alone in first place for 52 days, the Rays now have company, tied with the Yankees at 40-23 in the AL East, with 99 games left.
"To think it's going to be easy is just fantasy," first baseman Carlos Peña said. "We know that this is a tough division. We know that we have good competition. But at the same time, we can't even worry about it. We just try to win every single night and pile up as many wins as we can and then we'll count at the end."
That worked for much of the first 2½ months. It was a cold night in Chicago when the Rays took over first place on April 22 and a hot day in Houston when they built the lead to six games on May 23. But after going 8-11 in the three weeks since, they're tied with the Yankees. And the Red Sox are lurking just four games back.
"You knew that eventually it was going to get to something like this at some point. (New York's) not going away. Boston's not going to go away," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "You just can't expect to take it from the starting line to the finish. There's going to be some bumps. I've talked about this. We have not lost the lead. We're still in the lead. We're even up.
"I always like the idea of at least maintaining that, or actually staying ahead. But they're good. It's a long season left. And I'm certain we're going to get hot again like we had been earlier. I really feel another streak coming."
Pitching has become part of the problem with Niemann the latest starter who failed to deliver. He lost for the first time this season, allowing a season-high five runs and failing to go seven innings for the first time since his injury-shortened debut.
"It's not fun," he said.
Dazzling defense, especially by middle infielders Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez, helped keep the game 1-1 through five innings, but Niemann gave it up in a four-run, eight-battter, 27-pitch sixth, allowing homers to ex-Ray Jorge Cantu and Wes Helms.
"He just was not comfortable," Maddon said. "You could see it from the very beginning. He just did not have his good rhythm, his tempo. Nothing was really crispy for him."
Niemann's explanation was somewhat simple. He made mistakes, and the Marlins took advantage of them: "They weren't quality pitches."
Making it worse, the Rays offense — with Peña's homer streak ending at six games — disappeared again. Their only run came in the fourth when Carl Crawford made a daring dash home on a pop fly run down by Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla in shallow right-center.
After that, they wasted two prime chances: bases loaded with one out in the fifth with Crawford and Evan Longoria unable to get the ball out of the infield, and two on to start the seventh with John Jaso, Crawford and Longoria going down in order.
Of the 99 games remaining, the Rays have 13 against the Yankees and 11 with Boston.
"There's a lot of baseball left to be played," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "We expected all those teams to be in it the whole entire time. We're not going to change a thing. If we keep playing the baseball we know how to play and how we've been playing it, things will end up working out our way."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com