NEW YORK -- Forget the magic number. The Yankees need a magic bullet.
New York has held sole possession of first place in the American League East for nearly three months, but the club saw its grip on the division begin to loosen Sunday, when the second-place Orioles used a multihomer game from Mark Reynolds to propel them to an 8-3 win and a series victory.
That result gave Baltimore wins in all three road series against New York for the first time since 1976, and more importantly, it pulled the Orioles within two games of first place in the division. Now, the Yankees -- who have held on to the top spot for 82 straight days -- know they're in a race.
"We need to play better baseball," said manager Joe Girardi. "I'm asked every day what my level of concern is, [and] the concern is that you play better baseball. Not where you are in the standings right now. We're still in control of our own destination. The concern is we need to play better."
The schedule won't do them any favors. New York (76-57) is 2-4 thus far in a stretch of 22 straight games against division rivals, and they're about to embark on their longest trip of the year. The Yankees will play 10 games against the Rays, Orioles and Red Sox over the next 11 days.
But if the schedule is unforgiving, there may be other factors working in their favor. Alex Rodriguez is expected to come off the disabled list Monday, and two other injured regulars -- first baseman Mark Teixeira and center fielder Curtis Granderson -- could return at some point next week.
"We know we've got a lot of in-division opponents coming up," said Nick Swisher. "Obviously, right now is not the way we would like to play. But it's definitely not the way we're used to playing. There's definitely a lot of room for improvement. And we're pretty much going out there half-staffed right now. As soon as we get our boys back -- hopefully sooner than later -- we'll get right back on a roll."
The Yankees appeared to have that kind of momentum-changing win in Saturday's game, and they took control early on Sunday on a two-run home run by Chris Dickerson. Baltimore starter Chris Tillman left after three innings with stiffness in his right elbow, but the Yankees couldn't take advantage.
Reynolds, instead, turned the game. The veteran drove a solo shot into the left-field bleachers in the fifth inning, and he came back an inning later to do more damage. Reynolds, facing Phil Hughes (13-12) with two men on base, homered again to give the Orioles their first lead of the game.
"The wheels just came off there," said Hughes, who left with his team trailing by a 5-3 margin. "A lot of pitches finding the middle of the plate, and everything was flat. The two homers today to Reynolds were really killers, especially after getting the third run. It was important to shut down that inning."
Indeed, the sixth and seventh innings were the crucial juncture of the game. Baltimore trailed, 3-1, when the sixth started, and it put pressure on Hughes with a leadoff walk and two singles. And after the Reynolds homer, the Orioles got a key double play to erase a threat in the seventh.
Baltimore (74-59) put the game away with a three-run eighth inning, a rally highlighted by a two-run single from Nick Markakis off Boone Logan. Girardi used five pitchers in that eighth inning, and he said afterward that he was just trying to use his bullpen in the best possible matchups.
"You need them to get big outs. That's the bottom line," he said. "They're never going to be perfect, but you need them to get big outs. And you put them in situations to try to be successful."
The Yankees are 7-7 against Baltimore this season, and their six home losses to the Orioles are the most in the season series since New York went 1-8 during the 1976 campaign. The Yankees, in fact, have lost as many home games to Baltimore this year as they did from 2009 to 2011.
The rivalry is real now, and there are less than 30 games to play. New York needed a late comeback to earn a 4-3 win on Saturday, and without that rally, the Orioles would be in a tie for first place.
"I guess we just feel lucky to get that one yesterday, because we very easily could've been swept," said veteran Eric Chavez. "It's going to be a tough month. There's no doubt. But we've got to bear down. Hopefully Al's coming back this week, and Tex is following shortly after that. We've got to start to pick it up. There's nothing else to say and nothing else to do. Just pick it up."
The Yankees led the East by six games as recently as Aug. 17, and haven't led by less than their current margin since owning a 1 1/2-game cushion on June 22. New York's next opponent -- Tampa Bay -- trails by 3 1/2 games, and then the Yankees have to face Baltimore again at Camden Yards.
Still, despite the tight race, the Yankees can take solace in history. New York hasn't missed the playoffs since 1969 when beginning the final month in first place. And if that's not enough, the Yankees have finished in first place in 39 of the 43 seasons in which they led the division on Labor Day.
"All I hear is concern this, concern that. Nobody's concerned in here, guys," said Swisher. "We're two games up at the beginning of September. If you told me that in Spring Training, I'd buy into that. There's no concern over here. We're not disappointed. We do know we need to play better."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.