After the New York Yankees gave up ground to their closest pursuer in the AL East over the weekend, they'll try to avoid doing the same to the Tampa Bay Rays this week.
Alex Rodriguez may be able to help.The third baseman is expected to return from a broken left hand Monday when the banged-up Yankees open a crucial 10-game road trip with CC Sabathia on the mound."It's now September. It's time to go, it's time to win," scheduled starter James Shields told the Rays' official website. "Definitely going to be a big series. This is one of two series we're going to be playing against them in the next month, and yeah, it is huge."New York (76-57) made it more significant by dropping two of three to Baltimore to cap a 2-4 homestand. The Orioles are within two games of first place after winning 8-3 on Sunday, and they host the Yankees for a four-game series starting Thursday.Not that New York can look past the third-place Rays (73-61), who lurk 3 1/2 games back. The Yankees had dropped nine straight at Tropicana Field before rallying to win their most recent game there 4-3 on July 4."We need to play better baseball," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "The goal is always to play better baseball, not worry about where you are."The Yankees are hoping Rodriguez can bolster their lineup after they managed only eight runs and 16 hits in three games against Baltimore. They've gone 18-18 since the three-time MVP was struck by a Felix Hernandez pitch July 24.Sunday's lineup was also lacking Mark Teixeira (strained calf) and Curtis Granderson, who is day to day with tendinitis in his right hamstring."We can use (Rodriguez's) bat. We need him to come back and help us," Girardi said.Tampa Bay racked up a season-high 18 hits in Sunday's 9-4 win at Toronto. Two of those were by Ben Francisco, including a home run in the journeyman's first start with the Rays, who acquired him from Houston on Friday.A similar output seems unlikely Monday with Sabathia (13-4, 3.40 ERA) on the mound.Sabathia's string of six straight winning decisions came to an end Wednesday against Toronto, and the Yankees ace was hard on himself even though three of the five runs he yielded over seven innings were unearned following a Jayson Nix error."It's definitely disappointing," Sabathia said. "It's all my fault, obviously."The left-hander has struggled in St. Petersburg since joining the Yankees, going 1-4 with a 4.03 ERA in seven starts. New York has lost six of those games, including its season opener April 6, when Sabathia allowed five runs in six innings before Mariano Rivera blew the save in a 7-6 defeat.Carlos Pena hit a grand slam in the first inning of that game and Evan Longoria also went deep. It was a rare highlight in the matchup for Pena, who is 6 for 45 (.133) with 26 strikeouts against Sabathia, but Longoria is 13 for 33 (.394) with five homers and 10 walks.Shields (12-8, 3.91) probably wishes he didn't have to face Robinson Cano, who is 7 for 11 in their matchups this year and 29 for 68 (.426) with 13 extra-base hits lifetime.The right-hander is 1-2 with a 7.04 ERA in four outings against New York in 2012, but he's 4-1 with a 3.12 ERA in his last seven home starts in the series.Shields enters this start in a groove despite losing Tuesday at Texas. He allowed three hits over seven innings of that 1-0 defeat, and he's 4-1 with a 2.01 ERA in his last six starts overall, striking out 42 and walking five over 44 2/3 innings in that stretch."I'm going to go in there and pitch like I've been pitching the last month, and I think I'll be fine," Shields said.