ST. PETERSBURG — The only good thing that happened to the Rays on Sunday came when they had their pants down.
As they were pulling on wildly colored golf slacks for their themed trip to New York, the Orioles rallied to stun the Yankees and save the Rays from a lost weekend.
Because even though the Rays lost 6-3 Sunday, and lost two of three to the sub-.500 Angels, they didn't lose any more ground in the American League East race. The Rays open a four-game showdown series tonight at Yankee Stadium one-half game off the lead thanks to the Orioles' 4-3 11-inning win.
"First and foremost, I guess we got lucky with the Yankees losing again," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "We didn't play well throughout the series. I guess it wasn't that we didn't play well; we had a couple of opportunities that we squandered and overall didn't play like we really know how to play.
"I don't feel like we lost any momentum. We've got to take whatever positive we can into this series. We always talk about big series throughout the course of the year, and this is probably the biggest for us as far as winning the division and making a statement."
The Rays (89-59) seem to view winning the division as a bigger deal than the Yankees (90-59) since both seem most likely to make the playoffs (the Red Sox are 6½ back with two weeks to play), but heated competition is expected from both sides.
The division battle is technically for potential homefield advantage but also for a psychological edge should they meet in the AL Championship Series. (Plus, if the Rays win two games, they are assured the tiebreaker over the Yankees, and most likely even with one as they lead in the second tiebreaker.)
Matt Garza admittedly will be excited by the opportunity when he takes the mound tonight.
"Hell yeah. Why wouldn't I be?" Garza said. "It's a lot of fun going over there and kicking the crap out of them. Hopefully it doesn't go vice-versa."
And it's big for the less excitable types as well.
"It's going to be intense," shortstop Jason Bartlett said. "And obviously we're getting down to the end so we can honestly say these are big games now."
That was the case when the teams met three times at the Trop last week for games as riveting as any postseason series. All three were decided by one run, two in extra innings, and with either a tie or a one-run margin at the conclusion of 26 of the 30 innings.
"I don't foresee anything different than what you saw," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I know our guys are going to be up for the challenge. … This is what you work toward at the beginning of the year when you go to spring training. … You're looking for these kind of moments."
It's just that they would have been in a different position had they done better against the Angels in between the series with the Yankees.
Maddon insisted it wasn't a letdown and repeatedly praised their effort afterward.
"There's times when you don't get more runs than the other side but you're very proud of the way your players play," Maddon said. "And I am today; battled, battled, battled. … We played to the very last out."
The problem Sunday was twofold and not uncommon: The Rays failed to capitalize on an early opportunity when ex-teammate Scott Kazmir loaded the bases in a 38-pitch first inning, and Jeff Niemann continued to struggle with command, allowing a three-run homer to rookie Peter Bourjos that put the Angels ahead to stay in the fourth.
"It just was not our day," Maddon said. "You move on till tomorrow, and looking forward to it."