ST. PETERBURG, Fla. -- Just like that, it got away from CC Sabathia. A start shaping up as the lefthander's best of the season suddenly imploded in a disastrous sixth inning Saturday night as the Yankees lost to the Tampa Bay Rays, 4-2, in front of a cowbell-clanging crowd of 32,862 at Tropicana Field.
"Lost my command," Sabathia said of the sixth. "I was trying to nibble. Cost us the game."
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Said Joe Girardi: "He was rolling along so well, it looked like he was going to be able to shut them down."
It was a second straight disheartening loss for the Yankees (68-61), who arrived here on a roll, having won 10 of 12. Now they're hoping to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Rays (74-53), an AL-best 60-35 since May 8.
"It's not what you want, but . . . you can't let this carry over," Girardi said. "You have to turn it around tomorrow and play well the rest of this road trip."
Sabathia (11-11, 4.81 ERA) dominated the Rays for five innings, allowing one hit. "The best I've seen him in a long time," catcher Austin Romine said.
But holding a lead has been a season-long challenge for Sabathia, and the 2-0 edge he took into the sixth disappeared four batters into the inning.
"It's frustrating," he said. "Something that I've expressed over the past two years is not being able to hold a lead, and it happened again tonight."
Ben Zobrist, the third hitter of the inning, delivered the big blow, a two-run double on a 3-and-1 pitch that tied the score at 2-2. "I left a ball over the middle of the plate," Sabathia said of the 92-mph fastball.
Evan Longoria, 20-for-52 in his career against Sabathia, followed with an RBI single that made it 3-2. Longoria's 27th homer, off Preston Claiborne in the eighth, made it 4-2.
Sabathia certainly wasn't bad -- allowing three runs and six hits in 61/3 innings -- but he again came up short against David Price. It was the ninth time they faced each other, with the Rays winning eight of the nine. Price improved to 6-1 with a 2.68 ERA in those contests, allowing two runs and five hits in six innings.
The Rays, who have beaten the Yankees 16 of the last 21 times they've played in this building, historically have troubled Sabathia, who had gone 4-11 with a 4.47 ERA in 22 starts against Tampa Bay since joining the Yankees in 2009.
Before the game, Girardi was peppered with questions regarding Sabathia's down season. "A lot of things you could say," he said. "Bottom line is his fastball has cut more and his changeup has cut more, and that's what's led to the problems."
Some, though not many, have speculated that Sabathia, who has kept his weight under 300 pounds all season, might be too light. "It's not like he's 210 pounds," Girardi said. "He's still a big man."
After the game, Sabathia was asked what this season has felt like to him. "One big inning, I feel like I can't stop the bleeding," he said. "If something gets going, it's hard for me to make a pitch. I was able to get it back tonight, but it's just been tough."
The Yankees took a 2-0 lead in the fifth. Singles by Alex Rodriguez, who had been 1-for-15, and Vernon Wells gave them their first runner in scoring position. Mark Reynolds' one-out single loaded the bases and Romine worked a nine-pitch walk to make it 1-0. Ichiro Suzuki's groundout drove in the second run.
An odd scene interrupted play in the three-run sixth. Just before Zobrist's two-run double, Sabathia had to stop his delivery as a ball thrown by Claiborne, who was warming up, skittered past bullpen catcher Roman Rodriguez, causing time to be called. Sabathia seemed irritated but said it didn't affect him. "No," he said. "That's no excuse."