Yankees manager Aaron Boone looks on from the dugout before...

Yankees manager Aaron Boone looks on from the dugout before an MLB game against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 18. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Never was a team happier to see the calendar flip.

Wednesday night the Yankees lost, 3-2, to the Angels, completing a mostly forgettable month of August in which they went 10-18.

“Rough month,” Aaron Boone said by way of understatement.

August marked the worst month for the franchise since the Stump Merrill-led 1991 Yankees, en route to a 71-91 finish, went 9-19 in September of that season.

“Brutal,” shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa said of August.

The 2022 Yankees’ uneven play, however, has gone on longer than a single month, the reason this weekend’s series against the Rays at Tropicana Field, which starts Friday night, is far more significant than it appeared it would be, say, two months ago.

After a 12-5 beatdown of the Red Sox July 8 in Boston, the Yankees saw their AL East lead balloon to 15 ½ games and the notion of the Rays, or any AL East foe, making a race of it for the division crown was borderline laughable.

But the Yankees are 18-29 since then and, as a result, have seen their lead cut to six over the Rays, who have won 14 of their last 18 going into Friday.

“We’ve got a long flight back East, off day [Thursday] and then start an important series with a division opponent,” Boone said of the calendar turning to September possibly providing a clean-slate scenario for his slumping club. “Now we have to play better than we have. It’s as simple as that. We’ve got to start racking up some wins, whether the calendar has an eight or a nine or a 10 on it, we’ve got to get a little better.”

The Yankees, after being dominated by Tampa the last couple of seasons, lead the season series this year 8-5. But the Rays prevailed the last time the teams met, just two weeks ago at the Stadium when they took two of three, with only Josh Donaldson’s walk-off grand slam in the 10th inning of the series finale saving the Yankees from getting swept.

“If history tells us anything, it’s probably some tight ballgames, a lot of different pitchers we’ll have to see from the other side, quality at-bats from their lineup,” said Gerrit Cole, who will not pitch in the series after starting Wednesday night in Anaheim and pitching brilliantly until the sixth inning when Shohei Ohtani, after two Yankees errors, hit a go-ahead, three-run homer. “[They] play a really clean brand of baseball, so we’ll have to match that and grind some at-bats and try to score more than they do.”

All of the elements that allowed the Yankees to surge to such a big division lead – terrific starting pitching, equally terrific bullpen work, production from up and down the lineup and relative team health – have contributed to the poor play since before the All-Star break. But Boone has remained steadfast that the Yankees will recapture the first-half form that made them the odds-on favorite to represent the AL in the World Series.

“It is a long year and I have total confidence that we will,” Boone said. “We’re a little banged up within the lineup and obviously missing some key pieces that we need to get back. But that said, we have all the pieces right now to be able to go out and win baseball games, and that’s what we’ve got to take care of.”

He continued: “The unfortunate part of the last several weeks for us has been we’ve been losing those close games, and that’s what we’ve got to find a way to punch through. I think a big part of that is just getting a few guys going from a performance standpoint and from a health standpoint. Because it’s right there in front of us.”

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