ST. PETERSBURG — This wasn't the start the Rays wanted.
Not to the three-game series with the first-place Yankees. Not with decisions pending leading to Friday's deadline for nonwaiver trades. And definitely not from James Shields, who didn't deliver the Big Game they so needed.
The outcome was an 11-4 loss Monday night, and a reminder that the Yankees again look like the Yankees, with the big crowd (a larger-than-expected, and divided, 33,442 at the Trop) buzzing and the movie-star girlfriend looking on, Kate Hudson cheering on birthday boy-boyfriend Alex Rodriguez.
The result was another game lost in the AL East standings, the Rays dropping a season-high-matching 7½ games out as they hit 100 games at 54-46.
And the ramifications could be seen by the end of the week, as the chances for a big deal likely lessen as the deficit swells.
"Tonight I think was kind of a kick in the butt for us. Kind of embarrassing for our first game back at home," third baseman Evan Longoria said.
"We can't bury ourselves any further than we are right now. It becomes a lot tougher to win games late in the year because, especially the teams in our division, everyone is making a push, everybody wants to get in the playoffs."
The deficit is daunting, especially because the Red Sox are also in the way. Manager Joe Maddon prefers the Rays look at the daily challenge rather than the landscape and acknowledged he'd like more players to do so.
"I don't see any positive purpose in regard to applying more pressure to the day," he said. "I just want us to go out there and be ourselves, play our game, and keep pushing forward.
"I think when you start really trying to apply way too much weight to one or two games, and if you don't win, then it can become a huge negative."
But there is some urgency to tonight's game, as their hopes of gaining ground by winning the series depend on a good start by Scott Kazmir and an improved, more aggressive offensive effort against Yankees lefty CC Sabathia. Lose and they're looking at the possibility of a sweep and a 9½-game gap.
"I don't think we're in panic mode, if that's what you're asking," Kazmir said. But … "It's a big win for us if we can get it (tonight). I think it's a big game. I think it's a big series. It's a big homestand.
The Rays didn't show much Monday. Shields put them in a 5-1 hole by the sixth, allowing three runs in a staccato second, then opened the sixth with homers by Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher (the first of his two) in three pitches.
"It is frustrating," said Shields, his winless streak growing to seven starts. "I wanted to set the tone."
A.J. Burnett, meanwhile, gave the Yankees (61-38) exactly what they wanted, continuing his recent sizzling work (8-2, 2.08 in his last 11) as well as his dominance of the Rays (9-4, 2.86 in 19 starts), allowing just two singles over seven strong innings.
"I don't think I've ever seen this guy bad," Maddon said.
The Yankees, who have won 10 of 11, extended their lead to 7-1 in the eighth when Rodriguez nearly provided his own 34th birthday present, a drive to left just shy of being his 573rd homer as Hudson cheered.
One of Hudson's movies is How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. The Rays have to be careful they don't show How to Lose a Division in 3 Days.