OAKLAND -- The Yankees refuse to consider any objective other than the division race, keeping their eyes firmly fixed upon the substantial distance that separates them from the Red Sox in the American League East. Yet since the middle of May, only the Athletics have played more consistently than Boston, and those footsteps could be growing louder in the Bombers' ears.
In a sneak peek of the probable competitors in the AL Wild Card Game, Carsten Sabathia permitted solid contact early and often before departing in the fourth inning, opening the Yankees' West Coast trip with a 6-3 loss to the Athletics on Monday afternoon at the Oakland Coliseum.
"I keep saying it, but I'm not too concerned with where we're at in the standings in relation to them and in relation to Boston," Brett Gardner said. "I'm just concerned about us playing better. I think we've got a really, really good team, a team that can do a lot of damage and be dangerous deep into the postseason, but we've got to play better if we want to get there. It's up to us to figure out how to do that."
New York's lead for the first Wild Card slot was trimmed to 3 1/2 games as Oakland peppered Sabathia for five runs (four earned) and seven hits in 3 1/3 innings, including a three-run first inning that featured a Khris Davis RBI single, a bases-loaded walk to Matt Olson and a run-scoring throwing error by third baseman Miguel Andujar. Sabathia threw 39 pitches in the frame, spurring activity in the bullpen.
"I just didn't make enough good pitches," Sabathia said. "I couldn't get the ball in, didn't feel like it was coming out of my hand pretty good. … I didn't really realize how many pitches I threw in that first. It's not hot out or anything like that, so you don't really know. You just keep going out and trying to make pitches. It just wasn't my day today."
Matt Chapman connected for an RBI double in the second inning and Jed Lowrie drove home a fourth-inning run charged to Sabathia, who walked two and struck out four. Sabathia grew up in nearby Vallejo and has struggled in his career at the Coliseum, falling to 5-8 with a 5.38 ERA in 17 career starts at Oakland.
"We did a good job. He executed fairly well," Lowrie said. "We got a few soft hits there and found some holes, then we got some big hits when we needed them. That's what we do. Our lineup is relentless."
Yankees manager Aaron Boone said he thought Monday's struggles were more due to the absence of Sabathia's cutter than the proximity to his childhood home.
"You know he's going to go up against all righties, and that [cutter is] really the equalizer for him," Boone said. "When he's on with that pitch, it creates a problem as a right-handed hitter because you've got to deal with that thing usually elevated in on your hands. Then that opens up the outside part of the plate for his backdoor slider, his changeup. When he's right, he's really driving it in there."
The Yankees' offense started in promising fashion against Trevor Cahill. Andrew McCutchen led off with his first Yankees hit, stole second and took third on an error before scoring on an Aaron Hicks sacrifice fly. In the second, Luke Voit cracked his sixth home run in 11 games for the Bombers, a two-run shot to right field.
Cahill silenced the New York bats from there, facing the minimum over the next three innings before turning the game over to the bullpen. A succession of five relievers -- Lou Trivino, Yusmeiro Petit, Ryan Buchter, Jeurys Familia and Blake Treinen -- combined to keep the visitors quiet the rest of the way, helping Cahill to his first win in six career starts against the Yanks.
"We fell behind early and battled back and made it close," Gardner said. "They pulled back ahead and with the bullpen they have, very similar to the bullpen we have. When we get a lead we feel really good about our chances, and when they get a lead I'm sure they feel really good about their chances, too. They're running a bunch of good arms out there at you and we weren't able to catch up."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
The Yankees had their chances late against the A's bullpen. New York opened the seventh with two on and none out, but Petit struck out Voit looking and Buchter retired pinch-hitter Neil Walker and Brett Gardner to escape. In the eighth, Familia issued two-out walks to Hicks and Andujar, then recovered to strike out Gary Sanchez on a high slider.
"With the additions they've made to the bullpen and guys that have really emerged down there, they do a good job of shortening the game because they can really match up," Boone said. "You know you have to play well to beat these guys."
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Jonathan Loaisiga's dominant relief effort was the bright spot of Monday's contest for the Yankees. Making his first big league appearance since July 2, Loaisiga struck out four and walked none over two scoreless innings, allowing one hit. Boone said Loaisiga could have opportunities to earn a more significant bullpen role as September develops.
"I definitely felt pretty good out there today," Loaisiga said through an interpreter. "I spoke to [Dellin] Betances, kind of picked his brain about how to prepare for the role and what to expect. ... He basically told me to warm up using the fastball first, to follow up with the breaking pitches and carry that into the game and be aggressive from the beginning."
HE SAID IT
"It's not always the team that plays the best during the season. It's the team that plays the best at the right time and gets hot at the right time. Hopefully there's some of that left in the tank for us." -- Gardner
J.A. Happ (15-6, 4.00 ERA) will look to bounce back from his first rough outing as a Yankee on Tuesday as the Bombers continue their series with the Athletics at 10:05 p.m. ET. Happ allowed five runs and 10 hits in a 4 1/3-inning effort against the Tigers last week in the Bronx, taking a no-decision in New York's 8-7 loss. He's 5-0 with a 3.38 ERA in six starts since joining the Yanks. Liam Hendriks (0-1, 7.82) will start for Oakland as the A's prepare for a bullpen game.