NEW YORK — Suddenly, the Yankees have a tight race on their hands in the AL East.
Not with the rival Boston Red Sox — or even Tampa Bay. Nope, it's Buck Showalter and his surprising Baltimore Orioles breathing down New York's neck.
Orioles rookie Miguel Gonzalez struck out a career-high nine over seven shutout innings in a masterful pitching performance and Mark Reynolds homered twice as Baltimore narrowed the gap Friday night with a 6-1 victory over the Yankees.
J.J. Hardy added a solo shot for the Orioles, who moved within two games of first-place New York by winning the opener of their big three-game series. That's the closest Baltimore has been since a 1½-game deficit on June 22, less than a month before the Yankees opened a season-high 10-game lead on July 18.
"It's that time of the year where we know what's going on. We don't really have to look at the scoreboard, because we're playing the team that we'd be looking at," Yankees third baseman Eric Chavez said. "We're probably going to be doing that for the next couple of weeks, so we need to clean up what we're doing in here and take care of what's going on with our play."
Nick Swisher whiffed all four times up for the skidding Yankees, who have dropped seven of 10 and nine of 14. This was the first of 10 consecutive games against Baltimore and Tampa Bay, their two closest pursuers in the AL East.
Despite the recent slide, manager Joe Girardi and his players insisted there's no panic in the clubhouse.
"If you would have told me at the end of spring training, getting ready to start the season, we would have been two games up to start September, I would have signed up then," Swisher said.
The absence of injured sluggers Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira is catching up with the Yankees. Dominated by Gonzalez, they have three hits in 21 at-bats with runners in scoring position over the past two games.
"The ball was exploding out of his hand," Chavez said. "It only said 91, 92 (mph), but honestly it felt like 95."
Reynolds made two spectacular plays at first base and Chris Davis had a sacrifice fly in Baltimore's three-run second against Hiroki Kuroda (12-10), the Yankees' most consistent and durable starter this season. The 37-year-old right-hander went at least eight innings for the fourth straight outing but again was hurt by a lack of run support.
Pitching on 10 days' rest, Gonzalez (6-3) yielded only four harmless singles to win for the fourth time in five decisions. He walked one and threw 66 of 97 pitches for strikes in his second win at Yankee Stadium. The right-hander beat New York 5-4 on July 30, setting his previous career best with eight strikeouts in 6 2-3 innings.
"I think the adrenaline gets me going, helps me out," Gonzalez said. "I just like pitching against a good offensive team, I guess."
Showalter's young team has been gaining ground all month, winning 18 of its last 25 to head into September as serious playoff contenders for the first time in 15 years.
The latest victory increased Baltimore's lead over Tampa Bay to 2½ games for the second AL wild-card spot. Sitting at his locker, however, reliever Luis Ayala wore an orange T-shirt that summed up the Orioles' primary goal: "Buck the Yankees."
"Keep doubting, we don't care," Reynolds said. "We're coming in, doing our jobs and doing the little things to win baseball games."
Featuring a fine changeup and spotting his sneaky fastball effectively, Gonzalez pitched like a poised veteran in his 10th major league start as the Orioles improved to 5-2 at Yankee Stadium this year. He didn't have a three-ball count until the sixth inning.
The 28-year-old Gonzalez, born in Mexico, sat out the 2008 and 2009 seasons because of a knee injury and Tommy John surgery. He was 0-7 with a 5.40 ERA at three spots in Boston's farm system last season, then was released by the Red Sox in December. He signed with Baltimore during spring training and began the season at Triple-A Norfolk.
"I think he's a guy that's just letting it fly and trusting himself," said Showalter, who managed the Yankees from 1992-95. "He doesn't have anything to lose. Heck, he's had a lot of people in his career tell him that he couldn't do something and I think he knows he's in a place where people get him and know what he brings."
Darren O'Day worked the eighth and Brian Matusz gave up Curtis Granderson's 34th home run in the ninth before finishing the five-hitter. But the story was Gonzalez.
"He was just filling up the strike zone," Swisher said. "He's kind of a shorter guy, kind of throws it right out of his ear. You've just got to give him credit, man. He shut us down tonight."
NOTES: New York juggled its rotation for this weekend. Rookie RHP David Phelps will start Saturday instead of Sunday, and RHP Phil Hughes was moved up from Monday to Sunday. Freddy Garcia was bumped back from Saturday against the Orioles to Tuesday at Tampa Bay. ... Rodriguez (broken left hand) went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts and a walk in the first game of a rehab assignment with Class-A Tampa at Lakeland. RHP David Aardsma (Tommy John surgery) pitched a scoreless inning. ... Yankees LHP Andy Pettitte threw off a mound for the first time since going on the DL June 28 with a broken left ankle. ... It was the first time Kuroda allowed more than three runs since July 13 against the Los Angeles Angels.