Coming off two late-inning losses to the Devil Rays, the Yankees are in a strange position: trailing in both the AL East and wild-card races with only 43 games left.

"You don't have any soft spots when you get down to the last five, six weeks of the season," Manager Joe Torre said. "Every game is important. You can't take any opponent for granted."

The Yankees, who have reached the playoffs in all nine seasons since Torre took over, are 65-54 and open a three-game series at the AL Central-leading White Sox tonight.

There are definitely challenges ahead for owner George Steinbrenner's $200 million team.

"It's not going to get any easier down the stretch," Torre said. "I know George spends a lot of money and gets the greatest players available, no question. But the reason we've been successful is because of pitching. Mariano Rivera, number one. Work your way forward. It's what makes you consistent, especially in the second half and in the postseason."

New York has won 26 of 41 since dropping to 39-39 on July 1. But the Yankees' inconsistent play returned this week when they dropped two of three games at Tampa Bay, which has the second-worst record in the league.

The Yankees are 5-9 against the Devil Rays, and 0-3 against the lowly Royals.

During Wednesday's loss, Steinbrenner watched from his private box. He was cheering when Gary Sheffield hit a three-run homer to put the Yankees ahead in the fifth. An inning later, he was shaking hands with fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures as the Devil Rays began to rally. He was gone by the eighth.

* SELIG SPEAKS: Commissioner Bud Selig said he believes baseball can solve its steroids problem without help from Congress.

"I've often said I won't rest until I rid the sport of steroids," Selig said following the owners' quarterly meeting held at a Pasadena, Calif., hotel. "If we can't solve our problems, then I submit to you the government should do what it has to do."

Selig later reiterated his desire for even more stringent testing and harsher penalties for steroid users, including a 50-game suspension for a first offense, 100 games for a second and a lifetime ban for a third.

"There's no question the [steroids] program is working," Selig said. "Anyone who tests positive is gone."

-- From News Services

Joe Torre's Yankees have made the playoffs in all nine of his seasons as manager, but if the season ended today they'd miss the postseason.