Anybody worried that the Rays are already 7 games back in the AL East?

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays were 90 feet from epic. Three seconds from inspiring.

And still finished the day in fourth place.

Such is life in the American League East, where it somehow feels late in mid-May. The Rays put together an exhilarating rally in the seventh inning on Sunday afternoon but botched the follow-through and lost 10-6 to the Yankees.

If this were most other divisions, it wouldn’t seem like a big deal. Heck, if it was the AL West, the Rays would be an arm’s reach away from first place. But here, on the Rodeo Drive of MLB, the Rays are seven games back while chasing the Orioles, Yankees and Red Sox. To put that in perspective, the last time a team was seven games behind at any point and came back to win the AL East was Toronto in 2015.

So, does it feel as if the Rays need to start making headway in the division, like, right now?

“Yes and no,” said rightfielder Josh Lowe. “We’ve got expanded playoffs now, and so you just need to get a spot. Look at last year. The Rangers were the last team in and won the World Series. Go back to (2019), and it looked like the Nationals weren’t even going to win a wild-card game.

“Yes, it’s important for us to play well in the division, but if we look at the big picture and just keep going in the right direction, I think we’re going to have a chance to be there at the end.”

There are signs of optimism. The Rays went 6-3 on the homestand and could have floored the Yankees with a gut punch on Sunday. Trailing 6-0 in the seventh inning, they scored five runs and still had the bases loaded with one out.

Richie Palacios hit a soft liner to right that looked promising off the bat, but Juan Soto was playing very shallow and caught it on the run. Lowe tagged up at third base and broke for the plate but stopped after a few steps when Soto made a quick throw home.

“Honestly, when I hit it I knew I didn’t hit it hard, so I thought it was dropping in for sure,” Palacios said. “And then Soto, somehow, was right there. I didn’t realize how shallow he was playing, but when I looked at (the replay on) the iPad he was super shallow for some reason.”

One batter later, the Rays were out of the inning and, six batters after that, were trailing 10-5.

With the season officially crossing the quarter-point on Sunday, the Rays are 20-21. Not awful, but certainly not good. And considering the injuries they’ve had and the number of hitters in a slump, they’re probably in better shape than you might expect.

But the next 40 games need to be better. Perhaps, a lot better.

“I think that’s kind of the expectation, it’s our standard, that we play much better,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I’m proud of the way the guys for, just not being good, were able to hang in there. And this homestand has been a nice little turnaround to feel good about. I’d like to see it carry now onto the road.

“But, yeah, we have got to continue to play better baseball. We have over the past week, but we need to continue that.”

Starting Monday in Fenway Park, the Rays have 10 games in the next 10 days against division opponents. Considering they are 4-6 against division foes and haven’t even played the Orioles yet, it seems pretty critical Tampa Bay comes out of this stretch with a winning record.

Guys such as Amed Rosario and Ben Rortvedt, who helped carry the team during a team-wide offensive slump in April, are now beginning to cool off. Since April 29, Rosario is hitting .206 and Rortvedt is hitting .190.

That means Yandy Diaz and Randy Arozarena need to continue climbing out of their early season holes while Lowe and Brandon Lowe can hopefully infuse some left-handed power after stints on the injured list.

With 121 games remaining, there is plenty of time to make up ground. But as the Yankees showed on Sunday with five home runs, they’re a better team than they were last season. The Red Sox, shockingly, have the best ERA in the majors. And that doesn’t include the Orioles with the best record in the AL.

“We’re playing good baseball now, way better baseball than we were a week ago,” said starting pitcher Tyler Alexander, who went a season-high seven innings but gave up six runs. “So that’s the bright side. If we continue this way, we’re definitely a team that can compete in this division.”

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

• • •

Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.

Never miss out on the latest with your favorite Tampa Bay sports teams. Follow our coverage on Instagram, X and Facebook.