"I think every team in this division probably feels that they're somewhat fortunate to be where they are with the records that we have," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Being 41-40, you wouldn't usually think that you're right in the thick of it, but we are."
This one was decided by Logan Forsythe's go-ahead run-scoring single off Jose Ramirez in the top of the 12th inning, marking the final lead change of the night after the Rays' bullpen coughed up a lead in the ninth.
Forsythe's clean knock to center field drove home Brandon Guyer and put Tampa Bay back on top. Brian Roberts had extended the game in the ninth, launching a solo homer to right field off Rays reliever Joel Peralta.
"That was a tough one," catcher Brian McCann said. "We fought, B-Rob came up with a huge home run, we got some good pitching tonight. We just didn't get the big hit when we needed it."
Roberts' fourth homer of the year came one inning after Dellin Betances issued a pair of two-out walks, setting up Ryan Hanigan to deliver a go-ahead single off David Robertson in the eighth.
"I was rushing a little bit," Betances said. "I wasn't following through the way I wanted."
"I wish I'd come in with better command and been able to make the pitches I wanted to make, because I think I could have not given up Dellin's run," Robertson said.
Derek Jeter grounded to second base in his first four at-bats before opening the 10th with a single, but the Yankees wasted that, their last hit of the night. Brad Boxberger pitched two scoreless innings for his first big league win.
"It was such a strange game," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "A great game, then a strange game and then it becomes wonderful."
The defeat, the Yankees' third straight and their seventh in nine games, came after general manager Brian Cashman again stated his intention to upgrade the roster -- a slow process, he said, because the teams holding chips are asking for exorbitant prices.
For a trade to be consummated at this time, Cashman said that he would have to bite down hard and part with "personnel that I typically wouldn't want to part with." Betances belongs in that conversation, as do prospects like catchers Gary Sanchez and John Ryan Murphy, right-hander Luis Severino and slugger Peter O'Brien.
That idea is unappealing, yet with the division sitting within striking distance (just 2 1/2 games behind Toronto), there must be temptation to try for a quick fix.
"I think this whole thing is up for grabs for anybody to take control of it at some point," Cashman said.
Rays starter Chris Archer was his usual tough customer, holding the Yankees to two runs and five hits over seven innings; denied his fifth win in five career starts against the club by Roberts' late blast.
The Yankees' only scoring off Archer came in the third inning, a rally sparked when Ichiro Suzuki was plunked on the right knee by a pitch and raced home to score on Brett Gardner's triple into the right-field corner. Jeter followed with an RBI grounder.
Yankees starter David Phelps did his best to match Archer's effort, holding Tampa Bay to a pair of solo homers -- Matt Joyce in the first inning and Kevin Kiermaier in the third -- over 5 2/3 innings.
The Yanks threatened off Jake McGee in the eighth, but Jacoby Ellsbury's questionable baserunning short-circuited the rally. Ellsbury slowed near second base on McCann's shallow hit to left field with two outs as he watched Guyer miss the ball on a dive, then was stranded at third base by Carlos Beltran's popout.
"I don't think [Ellsbury] would have scored," Girardi said.
In a candid moment at his locker in the near-silent clubhouse, McCann was asked to assess his first 81 games in New York. His response was jarring: "Horrible."
A comment like that was not what the Yankees envisioned when they made McCann their initial target of a big winter makeover, but only the first half of the story has been written so far. The next 81 games will decide how the year is remembered.
"No one is running away with anything," McCann said. "I think once our offense clicks on a daily basis, we're going to be tough to beat."