ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Led by red-hot rookie catcher Gary Sanchez, the Yankees find themselves only 2 1/2 games back in the American League wild-card chase with 11 games to play, and they'll lean on a young pitcher as they try to finish a three-game sweep of the Rays on Thursday night.

"We're going to keep fighting. That's what this club does," manager Joe Girardi said. "We went through some really difficult times in Boston (in four-game sweep before Rays series) ... they've bounced back extremely well. You get the big hit from Gary and it carried over to tonight and we need to carry that over to tomorrow."

To keep their momentum going, the Yankees will hand the ball to rookie right-hander Luis Cessa, who is 4-2 with a 4.44 ERA. New York won his first four starts after he moved in from the bullpen, but has lost the last two.

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His turn keeps coming against the Rays -- he's only faced two other teams twice, but Thursday will be his fourth appearance against Tampa Bay, with modest results -- a 7.11 ERA, with 13 hits and 10 runs in 12 2/3 innings, including a loss on Sept. 11.

What Cessa has given the Yankees is consistent, reliable innings -- his six starts have all been between five and six innings. That hasn't been the case of late for Rays rookie lefty Blake Snell, who has lasted five innings just once in his last five starts.

The last time Snell faced the Yankees, he managed to throw 88 pitches in just 2 2/3 innings on Sept. 9 -- despite that, he's 1-1 this season with a 4.15 ERA against the Yankees, making his fourth appearance against the pinstripes.

Snell has hit something of a rookie wall, though, going 1-3 with a 6.41 ERA in his last five outings, dropping to his current 5-8 record with a 3.87 ERA. His ERA is increasing month by month, with a 4.82 in August and what is now a 5.54 in September.

He won't have to last long to trump the 1 1/3 innings that Alex Cobb threw Wednesday, giving up nine hits and seven runs in a bad stumble in his return from Tommy John surgery.

"The game got away from us early on," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "They were hitting balls hard and it seemed like everything he was throwing was resulting into a hit of some sort."

Any Rays success will have to start with containing Sanchez, who has three home runs in two games in this series and is making a late case for Rookie of the Year, despite his late call-up.

"(Logan Morrison) and I were talking on the bench. We were trying to think if we've ever seen anybody come up and do something like this," Cash said. "Was that his 19th home run today? 18th? Both? What a talented player, offensively, defensively."