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AL East race is September baseball at its best Columnist @HalBodley
ST. PETERSBURG -- Hours before the Yankees squared off against the Rays on Monday afternoon, manager Joe Girardi talked about what a huge week this is for the American League East leaders.

New York's once-commanding 10-game lead has been dwindling like the days of summer, with unbelievable Baltimore and Tampa Bay closing in.

"I have to agree, it's the biggest week we've played this year," Girardi said, staring off into space.

What he and Rays manager Joe Maddon didn't say is that this is what September baseball is all about.

And the reeling Yankees are making it interesting. They're helping write the script for the Cinderella Orioles and convincing the Rays that making the postseason -- or even winning the division -- are still very real possibilities.

When the Yanks lost their Labor Day matinee at Tropicana Field, 4-3, to the third-place Rays and the Orioles shut out the Jays, 4-0, their division lead over the O's was reduced to a fragile one game. On July 18 they led by 10 games.

The Rays are just 2 1/2 games back.

The Orioles, who have not had a winning season or been to the postseason since 1997, cannot be ignored. They're 20-8 since Aug. 4, and all the talk that they would fade down the stretch can be put to rest.

Managers refuse to put too much emphasis on one game, but this late in the season, Monday's was important for both the Yankees and Rays.

The Yankees arrived in St. Petersburg after losing two of three to the Orioles over the weekend. Alex Rodriguez was back in the lineup, and they needed to stop the bleeding. The Rays, riding the momentum of two wins over the Blue Jays, were determined to send a message that they're in the race for the long haul.

And that's precisely what they did.

It took a stolen base with two down in the eighth inning and a tiebreaking single by Chris Gimenez, summoned from the Minors on Saturday, to knock off the Yankees. In fact, it was a huge day for the unsuspecting Gimenez, who also singled in a run in the second inning against New York ace CC Sabathia.

Gimenez said that his day is right up there "with getting married, having our son during the offseason. Every time you step on the field, it's fun, whether you're good or bad. You're blessed to be that situation."

After the three-game series against the Rays at Tropicana, the Yankees go to Baltimore for four games and Boston for three before returning to Yankee Stadium for three more against the Rays.

"When you're playing the teams you're fighting the division for, or playing to get into a playoff situation, yeah, they become more important," said Girardi. "The one thing we try to preach is, 'Win every day.' Don't get caught up with 'We need to win these two games' and then take the next two days off. You don't want to do that, because what you've accomplished then is all for naught. To me, the biggest game of the year is always the game you're playing."

Which for the Yankees was Monday's, especially with Sabathia starting. He could do no better than leave after seven innings with the score tied at 3 after coughing up a one-run lead.

"It's frustrating, not being able to hold the lead," Sabathia said. "I just have to be a lot better than I was. That's baseball. We have to go out and keep playing. It's a tough game, but we still have a one-game lead. It's all up to us, and hopefully we can turn it around. We've had some injuries, we've got some guys coming back, and hopefully that can give us a shot in the arm to be able to take off and start playing well."

He added that at this stage of the season, all the games "feel like playoff games."

For the Rays, the next two weeks are just as crucial.

After the series with the Yankees, they host the AL West-leading Rangers, go to Baltimore for three games and then hit New York for their final series against the Yankees this season.

If a postseason berth is still at stake, it may be decided at Tropicana Field from Oct. 1-3, when the Rays end the regular season against the Orioles.

"Absolutely, it's really a big two weeks," said Maddon. "I like it, personally, and I think we like it as a team. When you start in Spring Training and you work so hard and get to this point, it's exhilarating.

"I know when the guys show up in that clubhouse every day, they're going to be on top of their game. We're not going to be perfect all the time, but I know we're going to be ready, and I love that part about it. When we play better teams, I think we play our better baseball."

Neither Girardi or Maddon will be satisfied with one of the two AL Wild Card berths. That may be all that's left, but for now their sights are set on the division championship.

This underscores how important the division title is this year with the addition of a second Wild Card spot.

The two Wild Cards will play a one-game series -- Russian Roulette if you will -- with the winner facing one of the three division champs.

"We're trying to win the division, not a Wild Card," said Maddon. "It was important we won today, and it's going to be important we win tomorrow -- and at least win this series. I like the energy and the way we came after them today. I want to believe that's what we're about."

A year ago at this time, the Yankees led the division by just a half-game, and they went on to win the title by six games.

"Yes, this is the biggest 10 days of the season," Girardi said. "You don't want to be in that one-game Wild Card.

"The only way you want to be in that one-game Wild Card is if you played into it the last day of the season."

Regardless, this is September baseball at its best.

Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is Correspondent Emeritus for Follow him @halbodley on Twitter.