"The way we've been playing, we deserve it," captain Derek Jeter said Thursday night after a 6-2 loss to the team with baseball's lowest payroll dropped the $200 million Yankees into a tie for fifth in the AL East.
"You don't win games on paper. You win on the field," Jeter said. "The bottom line is, it's good have talent so you can have a lot of confidence, but you've got to play."
Mark Hendrickson pitched effectively into the eighth inning, and Alex Sanchez homered and scored four times for the Devil Rays, who won a series against the Yankees for the first time since September 2002 by taking three of four from the seven-time defending division champions.
Aubrey Huff and Josh Phelps drove in two runs apiece off Chien-Ming Wang (0-1). The Yankees are eight games behind first-place Baltimore, their largest deficit of the season.
New York (11-18) has lost seven of its last nine games and four consecutive series to plunge seven games under .500 for the first time since July 18, 1995, when it was 33-40. The Yankees share the AL East cellar with the Devil Rays, who have won four of six meetings between the teams after going 4-15 against New York last season.
"We've been their punching bag for a while, so it's good to go out there and take three of four," said Huff, who had a pair of run-scoring singles.
Tampa Bay's three-game winning streak follows an eight-game skid that matched the second-longest in the majors this season. The Devil Rays rebounded from losing the series opener to outscore the Yankees 28-14 over the last three games.
"You beat a team that's highly respected, you should feel good about yourself," manager Lou Piniella said.
The Yankees held a team meeting before the game, with manager Joe Torre urging his players to forget the past and focus on the present as the club tries to fight its way out of its toughest stretch in a decade.
"We continue to do the same things. There's no place else to go. You keep waiting for a good result. That's basically what it comes down to," Torre said.
"We're being tested right now. You certainly have to just keep fighting and realize there is no magical formula."
Sanchez went 3-for-3 with two bunt singles and a solo homer. The speedy outfielder also stole two bases to help the Devil Rays win a series against the Yankees for the first time under Piniella.
"Coming into this series with the struggles we had on the road, it's a little surprising," Tampa Bay's Toby Hall said. "It just goes to show how baseball can change at any time."
Gary Sheffield hit a two-run homer for New York, trimming a fourth-inning deficit to 3-2. Tampa Bay pulled away with two runs in the fifth and went up 6-2 in the seventh on Sanchez's homer off Buddy Groom.
Hendrickson (1-1) allowed two runs and seven hits in 7 1/3 innings. The left-hander lost all three of his starts against the Yankees in 2004, pitching to an 8.59 ERA. He beat New York for just the second time in six career decisions.
Wang, filling injured Jaret Wright's spot in the rotation, walked Sanchez on four pitches to open the first and gave up an RBI double to Carl Crawford later in the inning. The Devil Rays made it 3-0 in the third on Huff's run-scoring single and Phelps' sacrifice fly.
The 25-year-old right-hander from Taiwan pitched seven strong innings in his major league debut last Saturday but didn't get a decision in the Yankees' win over Toronto. This time, he yielded five runs and eight hits in six innings.
"We have just not played up to our capability or up to our expectations," Torre said, nevertheless playing down the significance of being tied for last place this late in a season for the first time since June 1995.
"I don't think it's a concern where we are as opposed to what we're doing," the manager said. "Standings don't mean anything until the last day of the season."