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09/20/09 10:20 PM ET

Yankees look to create momentum

New York (95-55) at Los Angeles (89-60), 10:05 p.m. ET

SEATTLE -- Looking back over their shoulders has not been the modus operandi that spurred the Yankees to 95 victories thus far this season, even though they can plainly view an American League East race that has not quite reached completion.

The Yankees' destiny is still in their own hands as September draws to a close, but things are far from secure.

In the middle of what manager Joe Girardi has called one of their most important road trips, the Yankees now engage the Angels for a pivotal three-game series that could forecast a difficult playoff matchup next month.

"We have not played very well the last eight or nine games," Girardi said. "We've been somewhat inconsistent. These are important games this week, and we know that. They were going to be important at any point.

"As I've said all along, I think this thing is going to go down to the end. No one is going to hand you anything. You've got to go out and earn it. That's what we've got to do this week."

New York's loss to the Mariners on Sunday at Safeco Field trimmed its advantage in the division to just five games over the Red Sox, its smallest lead since Boston trailed by 4 1/2 games on Aug. 7.

With 11 games left on the schedule and a magic number of one to clinch a playoff spot, October is not in jeopardy, but the Yankees have been frustrated by their inability to win more games of late.

"The bottom line is that we just have to try to keep playing well," Johnny Damon said. "Lately, we've been losing some close ones, and it seems like no one else is trying to beat Boston. It seems like they're having their ways with the Blue Jays and the Orioles. That's part of baseball. I think we just need to worry about ourselves."

The Yankees got a one-game test at home against the Angels on Sept. 14, making up an earlier rainout with a 5-3 victory that featured a page stolen directly from Mike Scioscia's playbook. Brett Gardner stole third base and forced a throwing error that scored the go-ahead run.

"We know the teams that we're going to hopefully be playing in October, if we get there," Mark Teixeira said. "The Angels are going to be one of them. You need to measure yourself up against the best."

The Yankees were swept at Angel Stadium July 10-12 and Girardi said that he viewed Monday's makeup victory in a positive light, though there is still more to the equation.

"The fact that you had a good game against them Monday makes you feel better about yourself, but still, going out there is where we've had the most trouble," said Girardi. "It's an important series for us."

The Angels might not be the most ideal opponent for the Yankees to iron out their flaws, especially as the Red Sox open a four-game series in Kansas City heading into this weekend's three-game Boston-New York set at Yankee Stadium.

They need no reminders about the history about playing tough contests in the shadow of Disneyland. But the Yankees embrace it as a test of sorts. If they can take care of business on their end, all of the other pieces should fall into place.

"It is big, but if you think about it, all year long every game has been big for us," Damon said. "We know how to deal with it. Hopefully we can just go out and play good baseball."

Pitching matchup
NYY: LHP Andy Pettitte (13-6, 4.14 ERA)
The Yankees skipped Pettitte a turn through the rotation to rest an aching left shoulder, which had started to bother him during a Sept. 11 start against the Orioles in New York. Pettitte said that it is not the general pain and weakness that hindered him in the second half in 2008, but with the Yankees' healthy lead in the American League East, he did not hesitate to report the shoulder and sit out a start. Pettitte faced the Angels July 11 at Anaheim and took a loss, allowing six runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings.

LAA: LHP Joe Saunders (13-7, 4.75 ERA)
Saunders carried a shutout into the sixth inning at Fenway Park on Wednesday night when his defense unraveled behind him, causing three of the five runs by the Red Sox in the inning to be unearned. Saunders departed with two outs in the frame having yielded eight hits and three walks while striking out five. He has surrendered seven earned runs in the past 30 innings, covering five starts, for a 2.10 ERA. Saunders is 6-3 with a 4.29 ERA in 14 home starts and is 1-1 with a 7.97 ERA in four career outings against the Yankees.

Teixeira went 7-for-12 with three runs, two doubles, a triple, two homers and six RBIs during this weekend's series at Safeco Field. ... The Yankees have been in first place for 76 days this season, including each of the last 63. ... The Yankees are 3-4 vs. the Angels in 2009 and 9-17 vs. the Angels since the start of the '07 season, losing 16 of their last 21 games at Angel Stadium. Their 39-49 record vs. the Angels is their only losing mark vs. any AL team this decade. ... New York's magic number to clinch a playoff spot is one (combination of Yankees victories and Rangers losses). Their magic number to clinch the American League East is nine (combination of Yankees victories and Red Sox losses).

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Up next
• Tuesday: Yankees (Chad Gaudin, 5-10, 4.81) at Angels (Ervin Santana, 7-8, 5.43), 10:05 p.m. ET
• Wednesday: Yankees (A.J. Burnett, 11-9, 4.22) at Angels (Scott Kazmir, 9-8, 5.08), 3:35 p.m. ET
• Thursday: Off-day

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.