ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - With lefthander Chris Capuano on the cusp of returning from a quadriceps injury suffered in spring training, Joe Girardi said Thursday afternoon that he'd have to make a decision about his spot in the rotation "soon."

The decision was made for him about three hours later.

Chase Whitley left Thursday night's game after 12/3 innings with a right elbow injury, an early blow in an eventual 6-1 knockout at the hands of the Rays in front of 11,977 at Tropicana Field.

The Yankees said Whitley (1-2, 4.19 ERA) will undergo tests in Tampa on Friday. All involved are bracing for the worst. "There's obviously concern about this," Girardi said. "It's in that area you don't want to talk about."

It was a third straight loss to the Rays (20-16) for the AL East-leading Yankees (21-15), who started this nine-game, three-city trip Monday night with a victory that had lifted them to 6-1 against Tampa Bay this season.

The Yankees -- who hadn't scored in 16 innings and had been held to two runs in 25 innings before Alex Rodriguez led off the ninth with a home run to rightfield -- will begin a three-game series against the pitching-rich Royals on Friday night.

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"Obviously, the last three days haven't gone our way," Brett Gardner said. "So we go to Kansas City this weekend and a tough challenge. They have a really, really good team . . . We have to keep our heads up and realize we're still in first place. The last few days have been tough, but we'll be fine."

Steven Souza Jr. doubled with one out in the first and scored on James Loney's two-out single to give the Rays a 1-0 lead. Whitley retired the first two batters in the second but walked Asdrubal Cabrera on nine pitches and Joey Butler on four, the last of which was an 87-mph slider that was way high and outside.

Whitley, who said he'd been dealing with some discomfort in the elbow during at least his last several starts, did not signal for Girardi to come out. Brian McCann did. "I just saw his facial expressions," the catcher said. "I knew something was up."

Even Gardner could see there was an issue. "He didn't look quite right a few pitches before," he said. "Hopefully it's more minor than major."

Girardi and trainer Steve Donohue came out and quickly signaled for Esmil Rogers. "I have no regrets about it," Whitley said of not saying anything about his elbow previously. "I'm here to pitch. I try to stay away from trainers as much as possible."

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No. 9 hitter Rene Rivera, who entered the game hitting .126 with a .178 on-base percentage, greeted Rogers by whacking a first-pitch slider over the centerfield wall for his second homer of the year and a 4-0 lead. "It was a good pitch. It was down and away and he got it," Rogers said. "Maybe he was looking for that."

Rivera, who entered the game with five runs batted in, picked up his fourth RBI of the game in the fourth. Singles by David DeJesus, Butler and Rivera made it 5-0. In the seventh, Souza doubled off Chasen Shreve and scored on Evan Longoria's single for a 6-0 lead.

Rays righthander Erasmo Ramirez (1-1, 6.66 ERA), who pitched two innings in relief Monday night and allowed a two-run homer to Mark Teixeira in the ninth that lifted his ERA to 8.38, held the Yankees to one hit and two walks in five innings.

Matt Andriese then pitched three scoreless innings before Rodriguez led off the ninth with his ninth homer of the season and 663rd of his career. That was the Yankees' only extra-base hit in the final three games of the series.

"It's part of the game," Girardi said. "Offense is going to come and go. Pitching is what sustains you."

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On Thursday night, the news wasn't good in either area.