"If we're going to get to the promised land and win another championship, we have to beat the best," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "If we're going to complain about having a tougher schedule, then we don't belong in the playoffs anyway.
"It's going to be a tough road, and when we get to the playoffs, it's going to be the same thing. Maybe it's better that we're going to get tested these last nine games."
The Yankees' remaining slate includes six meetings with the Red Sox and three contests against the Blue Jays. By comparison, the Rays get 10 games against three less imposing clubs -- the Mariners, Orioles and Royals.
"On paper, it looks good," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We just have to keep playing. I've always been an anti-assumptionist and won't start now."
The Yankees could have been excused for jumping to conclusions early Thursday, having provided Sabathia with a lead at home by getting three runs off David Price through the first five innings.
But that 3-1 advantage came undone for Sabathia in the sixth inning, as the ace left-hander suffered an uncharacteristic meltdown that included a bases-loaded walk. Sabathia was unable to complete six innings for the first time since May 22, ending a string of 22 consecutive starts.
"I'm definitely disappointed. It was a big game," Sabathia said. "Trying to win this division is our main goal, and not being able to come through tonight, I feel bad. These guys put some tough at-bats on Price and scored some runs. He's been good all year, and I wasn't able to come through. I feel like I let these guys down."
Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria opened the sixth with hits against Sabathia, and Rocco Baldelli perfectly placed a one-out swinging bunt up the third-base line to make it 3-2.
Willy Aybar followed with a game-tying single, and after a free pass, Sabathia's final pitch to No. 9 hitter Sean Rodriguez sailed outside the strike zone, ruled a bases-loaded walk by home-plate umpire Andy Fletcher to force in the go-ahead run.
"I thought it was a tough pitch, but I went and looked at it, and he made the right call," Sabathia said. "It was a ball. You have to give them credit; they put some tough at-bats on me in that inning. I just wasn't able to make a pitch."
The Yankees next called on right-hander Joba Chamberlain, who had a balloon floating in his locker to celebrate his 25th birthday Thursday.
B.J. Upton spoiled the party with a two-run ground-rule double, and Crawford added a two-run single to complete the scoring in the frame. Sabathia was charged with seven runs on 10 hits in 5 1/3 innings, walking three and striking out six in a 111-pitch outing.
"It's frustrating to give up CC's runs and not give us a chance to come back," Chamberlain said.
Three runs in six innings off Price was progress after the Yankees were stifled during an epic Sept. 13 showdown at Tropicana Field.
Marcus Thames dealt the first blow in the second inning, lining a low fastball into the left-field seats for his 12th home run, a two-run shot. In the fifth, Greg Golson led off with a double and, after a Derek Jeter single, scored on Nick Swisher's RBI hit.
But Price was able to pin the damage there, getting Robinson Cano to pop out and striking out Thames to leave the bases loaded in the fifth. The Yankees also would leave the bags full in the sixth, as Teixeira made a loud out to deep center.
"Those are missed opportunities for us to blow the game open," manager Joe Girardi said. "Pitchers sometimes make pitches. Sometimes you get yourself out, too."
Javier Vazquez had a troublesome relief appearance, though he would settle in to retire the last eight batters he faced.
The problems came in Vazquez's first inning of work, when he tied a Major League record by hitting three consecutive batters -- Desmond Jennings, Aybar and Kelly Shoppach -- in becoming the first pitcher to accomplish the dubious feat since the Dodgers' Jeff Weaver on Aug. 21, 2004, against the Braves.
The last of Vazquez's plunkings, a floating curveball that came up and in on Shoppach, forced in a run, and Dan Johnson added a pinch-hit sacrifice fly to drive in Tampa Bay's 10th run.
"In all the years, I haven't seen Javy like that," Girardi said. "I'm not sure what was going on, but he figured it out and saved some guys in the bullpen."
Girardi waved the white flag in the eighth inning, taking advantage of his expanded roster to make wholesale defensive changes. The damage had been done, and with the Rays winning the season series 10-8, Tampa Bay owns tiebreaker rights in the event the Yankees should finish the regular season tied with the Rays.
"We're basically back to where we started April 1, with a lot less games to play," Girardi said.
The Yankees have regarded the AL Wild Card as an unwanted second choice, craving the home-field advantage that benefited their World Series run last year. But now that the road appears tougher than it might have been, second place begins to at least represent a nice safety net to have.
"It'd have been nice to win this series and give us a little bit of an edge, but at the same time, we've got three big series left," Teixeira said. "We've got a chance to finish it off and reach our goal. We just have to work a little bit harder now."