Members of the New York Yankees watch the ninth inning...

Members of the New York Yankees watch the ninth inning of their 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. (Sept. 15, 2010) Credit: AP

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.

This Yankees clubhouse, late last night, did not reek of devastation. Not even depression.

Another loss, 4-3 to the Rays at Tropicana Field - their fifth in six games on this trip and eighth in 10 games overall - failed to create one of those getaway nights so deathly silent that you can hear the zip of suitcases closing, or the rip of checks to tip the clubhouse attendants.

No, the defending World Series champions - and once again the second-place team in the American League East - departed here knowing that they have a formidable foe on their hands in the young Rays. Not an insurmountable one, though.

"We could easily have won five of these games," Joe Girardi said, referring to the Yankees' four one-run losses on this trip through Texas and Tampa Bay. "Sometimes you get the big hit, sometimes you don't."

Added Alex Rodriguez, who struck out against closer Rafael Soriano to complete the game: "There's no question about it, we want to win the division. I don't want to downplay it at all . . . But again, we're in a situation where the most important thing is to get our team healthy."

The Yankees and Rays put on a brilliant, three-game September show, a trio of one-run contests in which Tampa Bay took two to the Yankees' one. If the Rays can't sell out this dump, at least the attending fans displayed impressive passion.

In this finale, we saw Phil Hughes look stronger and sharper after skipping a turn in the rotation, a nod to his innings limits. Yet we saw Dan Johnson, the journeyman with a penchant for big moments, turn twice on Hughes fastballs for a pair of two-run homers, accounting for all of Tampa Bay's runs.

We saw Derek Jeter deliver an award-winning acting performance in the seventh when he pulled the "My hand! My hand!" routine on a Chad Qualls sinker that hit the knob of Jeter's bat and nothing else. Rays manager Joe Maddon drew an ejection for his vociferous protest of the umpires' incorrect ruling.

And to wrap it up, we saw Soriano pitch a fourth straight day - something Girardi rightfully never would allow for his closer Mariano Rivera - to secure his club's place back in the AL East penthouse.

These were not instances of the Yankees "losing" games, if you will. They simply got beat by a terrific team. They also suffered from the injury absences of Brett Gardner (right wrist) and Nick Swisher (left knee) as the corner outfield replacements Austin Kearns and Colin Curtis went 0-for-5 with runners on base.

As A-Rod acknowledged, it's a different sensation hitting a funk when you have such a cushion in the standings. Yes, some Red Sox fans have taken note that Boston trails the Yankees by six games with six head-to-head games left. These Yankees, however, aren't playing like a team that will collapse its way out of the playoffs.

Instead, they look like a club that is using the calendar to its advantage. Hughes looked decent, and with Andy Pettitte poised to make his return from the disabled list Sunday, you can start to see the makings of a postseason rotation. Gardner and Swisher should be ready to come back shortly.

By no means will they be able to wake up and roll over these Rays. Yet the cheaper, younger Rays don't intimidate the Yankees, either.

"I'm sure we'll see these guys in a few weeks," A-Rod said, and if you're a baseball fan, you'd very much want to see this sort of entertainment in the AL Championship Series. Then, the losers won't go to second place. They'll just go home.

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