Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, left, greets left fielder...

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, left, greets left fielder Carl Crawford, who had three hits and two RBIs in the Rays' 10-3 victory over the New York Yankees. (Sept. 23, 2010) Credit: AP

On this cool Bronx night, the real chill arrived at Yankee Stadium when B.J. Upton ripped a long fly ball to left-centerfield that went over the head of Curtis Granderson and bounced over the wall for a two-run double in the sixth inning.

Yankees fans have seen plenty of these pesky Rays this season, but their silence, at that moment, felt as if they couldn't believe what they were seeing.

And that was before Javier Vazquez entered the game, for crying out loud.

So much for these final 10 days of the regular season serving as a leisurely stroll to the playoffs for the defending world champions. The Yankees have some work to do, and they have to face the real possibility that they'll enter this postseason as the American League's wild card, opening each series on the road.

"We're back where we started on April 1," a tired-looking Joe Girardi said, "with a lot less games to play."

The final score was Rays 10, Yankees 3, with young Tampa Bay ace David Price outpitching Yankees equivalent CC Sabathia, and the worst news for the home team was that the Rays essentially picked up two games in the standings.

At 91-61, Tampa Bay drew even with the Yankees (92-61) in the loss column. And by taking the season series 10-8, the Rays ensured that they'll win the tiebreaker for the American League East title should the rivals finish with identical records.

How about a Yankees-Rays American League Championship Series? That would be awesome. At least the Rays think so.

"I would not be opposed to coming back here in a couple of weeks," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said with a smile before the game.

This four-game series began so promisingly for the Yankees with a pair of solid victories that boosted their division lead to 2½ games (two in the loss column). They stood one more victory away from bidding adieu to the Rays with some breathing room.

But they never thought these Rays would be an easy out. Not now, and not next month, either.

At this season's outset, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said, "Quite honestly, we thought the wild card was going to come out of this division and these three teams were very close to being equal. How you were going to handicap it was anybody's guess. Clearly, Boston would be closer than they are if they weren't so banged up."

"They've got a good team," Jorge Posada said. "They usually go out there, they pitch, they do a lot of things well. They play great defense."

The Rays take pride in not being intimidated by the big, bad Yankees. "To play here, you're playing against the tradition and the monuments and everything else going on," Maddon said. "It's great. It's good for us. It's good for our growth. I think our players really enjoy it also."

Affirmed Carl Crawford: "We just get excited about all of that with the Yankees."

The Rays kept their cool even as they fell behind 3-1 against the Yankees and Sabathia. They don't overwhelm you, but good luck trying to find a layover in that lineup.

When Vazquez entered the game in the seventh and hit three straight Tampa Bay batters, mixing in a couple of walks, you could practically see the steam coming out of Girardi's ears. The Yankees have choices to make for their postseason pitching staff, and many competitors aren't distinguishing themselves.

So little time left on the schedule, so much to decide and determine. And one potentially outstanding ALCS matchup looming in the distance.