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In an AL East that's rife with equality, expect a fight to the very end

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With a victory over the Yankees, the Rays move back into a first-place tie with the Orioles. (AP)  
With a victory over the Yankees, the Rays move back into a first-place tie with the Orioles. (AP)  

NEW YORK -- After the rainbow perfect for a postcard disappeared beyond center field just around seven at the grand cathedral of baseball, the Rays beat the Yankees in a game that was grittier than it was pretty to move back into a first-place tie in their division and drop the Yankees back into third, 1½ games behind.

Picture the American League East: This kind of standing swapping could go on all year, as the division is as loaded as any with talented and competitive teams.

It is also filled with flawed teams.

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Fresh off two straight defeats here, the Rays were confronting all sorts of negative subjects before the game, only to leave in a tie atop a division that could yet go any of five ways.

"How does that happen?" marveled the Rays' loose and fun manager Joe Maddon of their first-place move.

How?

Well, while all five teams have their great strengths, they also have some issues. That goes for the $200-million Yankees right down to the teams with the pedestrian payrolls, the Orioles and Rays. Tampa Bay can pitch with anyone but it has to scrap for runs. Toronto can hit but it doesn't always pitch.

New York can hit but frequently doesn't do it in the clutch. Boston is great one week, not so great the next. Baltimore is good for now, but who believes in the Birds?

Well, Maddon for one. He's seen enough to believe it could go down to game No. 162 for a playoff spot, like it did last year. And anyone could be in it.

"I've felt this way since spring training," Maddon said. "I didn't think anybody would separate themselves. And I thought that teams that weren't in the running the last few years were going to be in the running."

The upstart Orioles of Buck Showalter have defied the odds and embarrassed the critics by remaining at or near the top of the division for most of the first two months, while the other four more-seasoned teams have changed positions more often than Kim Kardashian changes boyfriends.

Three games separate one from five now, with all five above .500 (though not very far above). And anyone watching could envision, clear as that rainbow, a playoff spot coming down to very end, just like it did last year -- though this time one extra playoff spot could be on the line. Or maybe one fewer.

If they beat up on each other too much, their wild-card entrants could be limited to one. Or none.

"There are a lot of talented teams in the American League this year," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "We'll all beat up on each other, and they'll probably be some close races."

Right now in the East at least, they are all in the running. That surely includes the perennially overachieving Rays, a fashionable low-priced pick, as well as the powerhouse Yankees, who've made the playoffs every year but one since 1995 and who took the first two games of this series and started to feel they were onto something.

But that was before they met up with Rays ace David Price, who's answered every challenge this year and won almost every battle (except that bizarre spring clubhouse fight he had with his own towel that kept him out of action a few days). Price broke a 10-way pitching tie atop the AL wins leaderboard by lasting just long enough to qualify, five innings, in the Rays' 7-3 victory.

Price's penultimate out in the fifth inning was a classic matchup with Alex Rodriguez, an 11-pitch at-bat that ended with A-Rod whiffing at a curveball after a string of them.

"The at-bat with A-Rod … curveball, curveball, curveball, curveball ... was incredible," Maddon said.

In Maddon's view, it was not only incredible, it was the game. And perhaps even more for Price.

"That's got to be one of those seminal moments that can catapult him," Maddon said of Price.

When Price came out after five brutal innings of battle, Maddon reported he was "dripping wet." Nothing's going to come easily here, that's sure. The suspicion is that not one of the five teams has what it takes to catapult themselves above all the others. Just when you suspect the Rays could start to run away, they fall back. Same goes for the Yankees, whose payroll won't inoculate them against anything they'll find in the A.L. East.

If it comes down to the managers, it sure will be interesting. Some of the game's very best are in the A.L. East. These two in particular are nothing alike. As straight and by-the-binder as Girardi is, that's how wild and crazy Maddon is.

Maddon seems to be making up lineups on the fly. Maddon has employed 51 different batting orders, and since star cleanup hitter Evan Longoria went out almost two months ago, Maddon has tried eight different men in the cleanup spot, including non-sluggers such as Jeff Keppinger and Drew Sutton, who batted ninth Thursday.

The idea behind those seeming grab-bag choices is that Maddon wants to make sure he has someone who'll put it in play after the team's best hitter, the No. 3 hitter (though that changes nightly, too).

"I'd rather have somebody who's going to move the ball," is the way Maddon puts it about his cleanup choices.

Meanwhile, his Yankees counterpart Girardi is still seeking someone who's going to hit the ball hard with runners in scoring position. It isn't the Yankees' imagination that they have been terrible in those spots this year, not with their .220 batting average, good for 27th place of 30 major-league teams. The only Yankees hitter who's been really terrific with runners in scoring position this year is Eduardo Nunez, who hit .625 in those situations before being sent to the minors.

Girardi, for his part, is the one Yankees person who won't cop to the team pressing in big hitting spots. He thinks it is bad luck. Others think it is going on too long to be merely unlucky. Whatever the case, all these teams have their issues. Two things you can count on going forward: it isn't going to be pretty. And it's going to take awhile.

Even the great ones can be made to look bad in these A.L. East matchups. While the Rays are rotating singles hitters in the cleanup hole until Longoria returns in a week or so, the Yankees use a more traditional cleanup hitter, the Great A-Rod, who may wind up as the all-time home run champ. Although, the way it looks now, it's going to be a long slog to get there.

A-Rod isn't what he was, and he's seemingly struggling as badly as ever in the clutch. He heard boos after his 11-pitch lost at-bat to Price. But in fairness, it was an amazing duel between two really good players, just one of many we'll see in this division, likely right through game No. 162.

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