ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Yankees envisioned Corey Kluber making important starts and Zack Britton pitching the eighth inning in even more.
But as the Yankees dropped a third straight game Monday night, they saw Kluber implode in the fourth inning and the replacements for Britton give up the go-ahead run in the eighth in an 8-7 loss to the Angels at Angel Stadium.
And with the Rays now the hottest team in the sport — having won eight consecutive games, the Yankees saw their deficit grow to seven games in the AL East.
DJ LeMahieu said this is the time of year when players begin to pay attention to the standings and he remained confident in the Yankees’ chances.
“If we take care of business, we’ll be in a really good spot at the end,’’ LeMahieu said. “It’s a good division.”
“Our goal doesn’t change,’’ Gary Sanchez said through an interpreter. “That’s to win the East, no matter what.”
To do that, the Yankees will have to find out what they have in Kluber down the stretch.
In his return from a shoulder strain that sidelined him since May, the right-hander didn’t allow a hit for the first three innings before he allowed five runs in the fourth.
A back-and-forth game remained tied until the bottom of the eighth, when ex-Met Juan Lagares delivered a two-out RBI single off Clay Holmes for the go-ahead run and the Yankees couldn’t answer in the ninth, as the Angels used seven pitchers in the win.
It was the first time since June 30-July 4 that the Yankees lost three in a row.
Aaron Boone defended the decision to keep Kluber in the game despite three consecutive singles, a lineout to center and a walk before Jack Mayfield crushed a grand slam.
“One mistake really got him,’’ Boone said.
Kluber was encouraged by how he felt and like Boone, regretted just the Mayfield at-bat.
“I made a bad pitch in a big spot,’’ Kluber said. “It’s one pitch wish I could get back.”
The result wasted a resurgent performance from a Yankee offense that had been held down for most of the previous two games in Oakland.
LeMahieu doubled to left to lead off the game and came around on Anthony Rizzo’s opposite-field double to left.
Aaron Judge followed with a sharp single to leave runners on the corners for Giancarlo Stanton, who grounded into a double play.
Rizzo scored on the play, but that’s all the Yankees would get off Angels’ opener Mike Mayers.
Given an early 2-0 lead, Kluber retired 10 of the first 11 batters he faced, with just a two-out walk to Phil Gosselin in the first.
But Kluber, barely hitting 90 mph, faltered in the fourth.
The Yankees scored three two-out runs in the fifth to tie the game.
A single by LeMahieu knocked in Brett Gardner. Rizzo singled to center and moved to second on an error by Marsh. Judge delivered an infield hit to make it 5-4 and Stanton followed with a single to center to tie the game.
With runners on the corners, the struggling Joey Gallo struck out.
Andrew Heaney took over for Kluber to start the bottom of the fifth and immediately gave up a towering blast to Shohei Ohtani to put the Angels back in front by a run.
A two-out RBI triple by Lagares gave the Angels another run in the sixth.
Stanton continued his tear at the plate by hitting one into the rocks over the center-field fence, a two-run shot measured at 457 feet that tied it again.
Peralta pitched a scoreless seventh and allowed a leadoff single to Marsh in the eighth. Marsh advanced to third on a pair of groundouts before scoring on Lagares’ RBI single against Holmes.
“We’re playing really good ball,’’ LeMahieu said. “We just came out on the short side of things the last three days.”