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One (more) last chance for the Yankees

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The New York Yankees took two out of three games from the Tampa Bay Rays this weekend, which is not important in and of itself. They still return home a game closer to .500 and a game further away from first place in the American League East than when they left a week ago, and they have to vault over two teams to sneak into the second wild-card spot, which looks like their only pathway into October.

But where it is potentially important is as a gateway to the kind of winning streak they have been looking for all season, the one in which they roll off a half-dozen or more wins and suddenly find themselves back in the thick of things.

Yes, I know, they have been in this position before only to immediately lose momentum and slip back to where they were.

But after Monday's off day, the Yankees have one more golden opportunity -- quite possibly their last of the season -- to make good on all their boasts of being able to turn the disappointment of April, May, June and July into the triumph of August, September and maybe even October.

Because directly ahead of them is a string of patsies -- three games against the Houston Astros and three more against the Chicago White Sox, with a combined record of 111-136 -- whom they not only should beat, but must beat if they have any hope of staying in this race.

Sunday afternoon's series finale against the Rays was a good start, a tidy 4-2 win that featured all the assets the Yankees will have to maintain to remain successful: good starting pitching, excellent and sometimes spectacular defense, flawless relief work and just enough timely hitting to allow them to escape with a win. For all their scrappiness, the Rays do not hit very well, but for one of the few times this season the Yankees hit a little bit more. They scored only seven runs in the three games here but managed to win two out of three after being shut out Friday night.

It might not be much to brag about, but it is a start.

"It’s much better when you win," said Mark Teixeira, whose eighth-inning solo home run -- No. 20 of the season and No. 361 of his career -- gave the Yankees and closer David Robertson a mini-cushion to fall back on. "It was a good bounce-back week. We hadn't played well the first few games of the road trip, so it’s really good bouncing back the way we did the last two games."

True, the road trip started out like a horror movie, with bad losses at Camden Yards to the Baltimore Orioles -- the kind of losses that tended to kill any misconception that the Yankees were in the same league as the division leaders. And when they lost the first game here 5-0, it looked as if this team's race had been run and it was simply galloping out the rest of the season.

But then came Saturday's 3-2 win behind Shane Greene and a clutch Derek Jeter single. And Sunday's win, which featured what amounted to a hailstorm of hits -- four in a row in the fifth inning -- and, speaking of bounce-back performances, a strong 6 2/3 innings from Hiroki Kuroda, who looked to be running on fumes his previous time out.

But this time, after considering skipping him in the rotation for one start, manager Joe Girardi gave the 39-year-old Kuroda two extra days of rest, and it seemed to make a difference. After a rocky first inning in which he needed some help in the form of a great diving stop by Martin Prado at second base to escape allowing just one run, Kuroda settled down to retire 17 straight Rays, and his stuff seemed to crackle with renewed life.

"With the two extra days, I was able to physically get refreshed, as well as mentally," said Kuroda, who came into the game with a 2-4 lifetime record and 6.07 ERA against the Rays -- including 1-3 with a 6.94 ERA at Tropicana Field.

"Maybe the extra days helped him," Girardi said. "It certainly didn't hurt."

With Monday's day off, Kuroda will be able to get an extra day of rest before his next start, and Girardi said he would try to take advantage of the final off day of the season, on Sept. 8, to give Kuroda another extra day of rest down the stretch. It seems like a good idea, considering that the Yankees' offense still has to work like hell to score as many as four times in a game. Stingy pitching and watertight defense will be essential in the remaining 40 games since, at this point, the offense isn't likely to change all that much.

To that point, the Yankees got terrific glove work at second from Prado, an infielder by trade who has been forced to play out of position in right field for much of his brief Yankees tenure, from Chase Headley, who made a spectacular diving stop on a James Loney drive that had "double" stamped on it when it left the bat, and from Stephen Drew, getting a rare chance to play shortstop, his real position, with Jeter getting a second consecutive DH day.

The Yankees also got a huge strikeout from Shawn Kelley, who came in with two runners on -- including the tying run at third base -- in relief of Kuroda in the seventh inning, and a dominant two-strikeout inning from Dellin Betances, who from this point on should not be asked to go more than one inning in any game unless absolutely, positively necessary. Robertson, who has not blown a save since June 1 -- a string of 21 successful conversions -- survived a rocket to right field that Ichiro Suzuki, now reduced to defensive-replacement duty, flagged down in right-center.

“It’s not what we wanted," Girardi said of losing three of the five games on this rain-shortened road trip, "but it’s better than it looked as of Friday night at 10:30 [when the Yankees were 0-3], that’s for sure. We were able to win [the series], so hopefully this carries over and we can go on another good roll when we go back home.”

Not hopefully. Necessarily.

There are still a comparative ton of games to be made up, and only 40 games left in which to do it.

The next six games, against the type of weak opposition past Yankees teams used to eat up, can't be allowed to slip away -- nor can the six that follow them, three each in Detroit and Toronto.

These are the kinds of teams the Yankees have got to beat or risk facing the sobering reality of being no better than any of them.

Beating the Rays two out of three in a building that used to be a chamber of horrors for the Yanks was a positive, but it's just a start.

Now they have to come up with a strong finish.

NOTES: With the Blue Jays losing to the White Sox, the Yankees moved into second place in the AL East for only the third time in the past two months; the last time was at the end of play on Aug. 8. But they remain seven games behind the Orioles, and 3.5 games behind the Mariners in the hunt for the second wild-card spot. ... Brett Gardner's two-run single in the fifth gave him 52 RBIs for the season, which ties his career high, set last season. He leads the AL with 46 RBIs out of the leadoff spot. ... Having fallen behind 1-0 in the first inning, this was the Yankees' 25th comeback win of the season and 11th in their past 14 wins. ... Kuroda had not beaten the Rays since Sept. 16, 2012, a streak of four winless starts. He is 5-1 with a 3.72 ERA against AL East opponents.