OAKLAND, Calif. -- Derek Jeter already considers this the playoffs.
The New York Yankees usually have a safe lead in early September and a postseason berth all but locked up by mid-month. Now, every win is big in a tight race for the AL East and the wild card.
Jeter homered on the first pitch of the game, Mark Bellhorn also connected and Hideki Matsui added an RBI triple, and the New York Yankees took an important series from the Oakland Athletics with a 7-3 victory Sunday night.
"I don't know why shoot for second place," Jeter said. "We're still in the race for the AL East and that's what our approach is, winning the division. You talk about us getting to the playoffs, but we're in the playoffs now."
Shawn Chacon pitched 6 2/3 effective innings to win for the fourth time in five starts, staked to an early lead thanks to New York's suddenly potent offense.
Jason Giambi and Jorge Posada each hit RBI singles in the third as the Yankees built a quick 4-1 lead against Barry Zito, then New York added two more in the fourth on three straight hits -- a leadoff double by Jeter, Matsui's triple that snapped an 0-for-12 streak and an RBI single by Gary Sheffield.
The Yankees moved one game ahead of Oakland in the AL wild-card race and the A's fell a game behind the first-place Los Angeles Angels in the AL West after all three teams entered play Sunday with identical 76-59 records. The Angels beat Seattle 5-3.
New York has an off day Monday before playing three at Yankee Stadium against lowly Tampa Bay, then a weekend series at home against the archrival Boston Red Sox.
Chacon (4-2) gave the Yankees another solid pitching effort a day after Aaron Small started in place of the injured Mike Mussina and surprised everyone by pitching his first career shutout. Chacon, who had his three-game winning streak snapped last Tuesday at Seattle, allowed two runs and five hits, struck out three and walked three.
Manager Joe Torre insists the Yankees wouldn't be in this position without the contributions of Small and Chacon. New York has 20 wins from pitchers not in the rotation on opening day.
"There's no doubt in my mind this team has a chance to do something good," said Chacon, inspired by Small's outing. "To be a part of it is a blessing."
The A's won the opener Friday 12-0, then New York bounced back with a 7-0 victory Saturday.
Zito's pitch count went up in a hurry and he was knocked out after 3 1/3 innings to match his shortest outing of the year, which he also did April 9 at Tampa Bay. He allowed six earned runs on nine hits, struck out three and walked three before giving way to Keiichi Yabu.
"Walks and hit batters are not a good formula against this club," A's manager Ken Macha said. "They worked the daylights out of (Zito). One guy after another having five-, six-, seven-pitch at-bats -- that's a task at getting through that batting order."
The left-handed Zito (12-11) was 9-2 with a 2.17 ERA over his previous 14 starts, including an impressive nine-inning effort in the A's 2-1, 11-inning win over the Angels last Tuesday.
Jeter hit his 15th homer of the year, third leadoff homer of the season and 15th of his career. Bellhorn, earning the start as Torre tries to give his bench some necessary at-bats before the stretch run, hit a solo homer with two outs in the second for his eighth of the year.
"I wasn't getting the ball down," said Zito, who will get an extra day off before his next turn. "They had a good approach. They laid off a lot of good changeups down and they capitalized on mistakes. It seemed like we played them one way and they hit it the other way."
Marco Scutaro hit his sixth homer with two outs in the fifth, and Jay Payton and Scott Hatteberg each had two hits for the A's, who lost for the fourth time in five games following a seven-game winning streak.
"We've had this kind of stretch before and bounced back," Oakland outfielder Nick Swisher said. "There's just a little more at stake right now. There's still a lot of baseball left and we know how to come from behind."
Zito is 2-7 in 13 career starts against the Yankees, his worst winning percentage against any team he's faced at least twice. Zito allowed three runs and six hits over 7 1/3 innings in the A's 6-3, 10-inning win at Yankee Stadium on May 6, but did not receive a decision.
Oakland's Jason Kendall, who had his seven-game hitting streak snapped, came in batting .556 against Chacon.
- Torre expects Jaret Wright (bruised collarbone) to make his start Wednesday after throwing a successful side session Sunday.
- At 3 hours, 35 minutes, Oakland played its longest nine-inning game this year.
- Zito has allowed 14 home runs in 75 2/3 career innings against the Yankees.
- New York 1B Tino Martinez missed his fourth straight game with a strained rib cage.
- A's third-base coach Ron Washington has received an outpouring of support from the A's after his house was flooded in Hurricane Katrina in his native New Orleans. The A's raised money for him, and Giambi, who worked with Washington in the Oakland farm system, gave $20,000 to help Washington and his family recover. Washington will leave the A's late Monday and spend three days in Alabama with his wife and family -- all 26 of them -- working to get them moved from a shelter into three houses.