ST. PETERSBURG (AP) — Seven upcoming meetings between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays could go a long way toward determining the AL East champion.

The first may also help sort out the race for the AL Cy Young Award.

New York’s CC Sabathia will take another shot at his 20th win Monday night at Tropicana Field, but Tampa Bay’s David Price will also be part of an elite matchup of left-handers as the majors’ top teams square off.

While both clubs are likely to reach the postseason, the division race tightened over the weekend as the Yankees (87-56) were swept in a three-game set at Texas. Sunday’s 4-1 defeat was New York’s sixth loss in seven games.

The Rays (86-56) could have taken over first place Sunday, but they missed out on a three-game sweep of Toronto after blowing a one-run lead in the ninth inning of a 5-4 loss. They still lead the wild card race by 7 1/2 games.

“Every series from here on out is a big deal, until we clinch,” Rays outfielder Carl Crawford said. “When we play the Yankees (on Monday), it’s probably going to have that playoff atmosphere.”

Sabathia (19-6, 3.14 ERA) and Price (17-6, 2.87) will only add to the intensity as each tries to bolster his Cy Young resume.

The Yankees’ ace is also trying to lock up his first 20-win season, but he couldn’t take advantage of his first chance Tuesday against Baltimore. Sabathia allowed six runs – five earned – in 6 1-3 innings of a 6-2 loss, his first home defeat in 22 starts.

Since joining the Yankees, he’s 1-3 with a 4.23 ERA in seven starts against the Rays, who spoiled his only chance for a 20th win last year. Sabathia lasted 2 2-3 innings of a 13-4 road loss on Oct. 2.

“It’s tough to go out there and pitch for individual things,” Sabathia said after that game. “I just wanted to go out, have a good outing, and keep the run going to the playoffs. It was just one of those tough nights.”

Price had one of those the last time he faced the Yankees, allowing seven runs in a 9-5 loss July 18 at Yankee Stadium. Since then, he’s 5-1 with a 2.93 ERA in nine starts, and has won both previous home outings against New York.

The 25-year-old said he’s not thinking about his Cy Young candidacy in his second full season.

“I get asked about it every now and then. That’s about all the thinking I do about (it),” Price said Tuesday after being backed by five homers in a 14-5 win over Boston. “I’m set on bigger goals than that. We’ve got the World Series on our minds right now so that’s what we’re playing for.”

The Yankees may end up standing in Tampa Bay’s way in October, but first the teams will square off seven times in the next 11 days.

In addition to chasing its 11th division title in 13 years, New York is hoping to avoid its first four-game losing streak since a five-game skid from May 2-7, 2009.

“I feel good about this team,” manager Joe Girardi said. “We’ve worked hard to where we are, we still have some baseball left, and I firmly believe we’ll play well down the stretch.”

Some lingering injuries have slowed the Yankees, who’ve been held to three or fewer runs five times in their last seven games. Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner sat out Sunday as New York totaled two hits.

Tampa Bay, meanwhile, scored at least four runs in all nine games of a road trip that concluded Sunday. Crawford went 15 for 33 (.455) with four doubles, four triples and seven RBIs on the swing.

Updated September 12, 2010
51 © 2010 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.
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