Yanks yuk it up ahead of serious series

CLEVELAND -- The Yankees finished their trip to Progressive Field by playing the funniest inning of baseball since Costello asked Abbott, "Who's on first?" Nick Swisher struck out against a third baseman masquerading as a pitcher, and someone in the stands got a souvenir via airmail from a DH masquerading as a third baseman. And we haven't even mentioned Chan Ho Park yet.

Yes, it's all good fun until somebody loses an eye, or the lead in the American League East, a definite possibility if the Yankees bring their comedy act -- and Park -- on the road with them for a three-game series against the second-place Rays that begins Friday night at Tropicana Field.

Because what was funny in Cleveland will not be quite so amusing in Tampa. If the Yankees find themselves leaving 14 runners on base, or getting men on first and second with none out in four straight innings and coming away with only one run, or allowing Park anywhere near a pitcher's mound, all of which they did Thursday night, chances are they will limp out of George Steinbrenner's adopted hometown having lost two out of three or maybe even three out of three, as opposed to rolling out of Cleveland having won three out of four.

And if there wasn't already enough pressure on the Yankees, Hal and Hank Steinbrenner both will be in the ballpark to see their team up close and personal this weekend for the first time since the death of their father on July 13.

So as much fun as Thursday night's 11-4 laugher over the Indians might have been, the serious part of the schedule resumes this weekend against a team that just refuses to go away. The harsh reality of the Yankees' season is that as well as they have played so far -- and after 101 games, they are 65-36, three games better than they were last year, when they finished 103-59 and went on to win the World Series -- the Rays are sitting right at their shoulder, stalking them, just waiting, it seems, for the first extended stumble so they can nudge their way ahead.

"They're right behind us, and I don't expect that to really change," Joe Girardi said. "I think we're going to have to play at an extremely high level and it's still probably going to go right down to the wire."

The Yankees have gone 9-4 since the All-Star break and won seven of their past 10 games. And the Rays have done exactly the same, having completed a four-game sweep over the Tigers on Thursday afternoon before the Yankees had finished batting practice. When they went into the break, the Yankees held a two-game lead, and going into this three-game series, the lead remains the same.

"We're basically where we were two weeks ago," Girardi said. "We know this is an important series, Tampa is an outstanding club and people are excited about it. I heard they might even have sellouts this weekend."

The bright spot for the Yankees is they will miss David Price, the Rays ace who won his 14th game over the Tigers on Thursday. But they will get Matt Garza, fresh off his no-hitter over the Tigers on Monday, and James Shields on Sunday. For the opener, it will be Phil Hughes, who has allowed nine earned runs in his past 10 1/3 innings and seven home runs in four starts in July, and has seen his ERA soar from 1.38 on May 12 to where it sits now, at 4.04, facing the Rays' Wade Davis.

And unlike the Yankees, the Rays, who went to the 2008 World Series but lost in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies, aren't getting older; they're getting better. "They're obviously more experienced now," Girardi said. "They've played in big games and they understand what that's about, and that changes a club a little bit."

For the Yankees, the biggest worry, of course, is whether they can continue to win at the rate they have been winning all season, especially with Andy Pettitte on the disabled list, the struggles of Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, the utter uselessness of Park, and the nagging injuries to some of their older regulars, notably Jorge Posada, who was held out of the lineup again Thursday night with lingering soreness in his left knee.

On Thursday, Dustin Moseley filled in admirably for Pettitte, pitching six solid innings of four-hit, one-run baseball. The offense, unable to get a timely hit for six innings, finally exploded for seven runs in the seventh, starting with Robinson Cano's solo home run with two outs in the inning.

The Yankees drew 12 walks from a parade of increasingly inept Cleveland relief pitchers, and all was well in hand until Park went haywire in the ninth, walking three batters, throwing a wild pitch, allowing an RBI single and getting the final out on a rocket by Luis Valbuena that probably would have been a three-run homer in Yankee Stadium.

The comic relief was provided by Swisher, who swung through an 87 mph fastball fired by Andy Marte, a third baseman pressed into emergency service in the top of the ninth, and by Marcus Thames, who, playing third base for the first time since Little League, made a sparkling backhand stop on Jayson Nix's hot shot and then airmailed his throw into the expensive seats behind first base.

After it was over, there were friendly jabs in the Yankees' clubhouse for both players -- "I just gotta wear it," a rueful Swisher said -- but underneath, there was the definite feeling that starting Friday night, the fun and games are over for awhile.

"It's pretty exciting," said Alex Rodriguez, who failed to hit his 600th home run in six at-bats against six Cleveland pitchers but still had a hit and three RBIs. "We're in the middle of a pennant race and we have two teams that are playing pretty well right now. We're having fun, having a great time, and hopefully we can take that right into the weekend."

The fun, yes. But the funny business? That they better leave that behind in Cleveland, or come Monday morning, they might find themselves behind the Rays in Tampa.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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