Even in their recent stretch of eight victories in 11 games, the Yankees hadn't entirely cured what had been a season-long obstacle: hitting with runners in scoring position.
That futility, along with a less-than-sharp performance by CC Sabathia, bit them Thursday night in a 7-3 loss to the Rays in front of 39,891 at the Stadium.
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"You've got to be able to score when you get the opportunity, and we weren't able to do that,'' said Curtis Granderson, who went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts.
Tampa Bay (32-25), tied with the Orioles for first in the AL East, had managed only one run and eight hits in the first two games of the series but had 10 hits against Sabathia and three relievers in preventing the sweep.
The Yankees (31-25), who struck out 13 times -- their season high in a nine-inning game -- went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position to drop their average to .217 in such situations this season. They left 10 on base.
The Yankees drove David Price from the game after five innings and 109 pitches but left him relatively untouched, as the lefthander allowed only one run.
They had a chance to cut into a 5-1 deficit in the fifth but came up empty despite forcing Price (8-3, 2.40) to throw 38 pitches in the inning.
That brought up Alex Rodriguez, 1-for-9 with the bases loaded this season and 9-for-53 with runners in scoring position. He battled through an 11-pitch at-bat with Price, who threw him seven curveballs and wound up striking him out on a 79-mph curve.
Robinson Cano, hitting .157 with runners in scoring position entering the game, grounded to second to end the inning.
"I haven't been doing my job,'' Cano said. "There's no excuses. You want to go out there and get your job done with men on base.''
Rays manager Joe Maddon thought the Rodriguez at-bat keyed his team's victory. "That was the game, I thought,'' he said. "The game could have gone the other way had he walked or gotten a hit at that point.''
The Yankees started the night 0-for-8 with RISP before pinch hitter Raul Ibañez's two-out single in the eighth drove in Rodriguez to make it 5-2.
"I think there's some frustration there, I do,'' Joe Girardi said of the RISP difficulties experienced by A-Rod and Cano. "But I still think, you look at Alex's at-bat, it's still a good at-bat. And I thought Robbie had a pretty good at-bat against a guy throwing 98 from the left side. It's just not happening [right now].''
The Rays added two runs in the ninth on a double by Drew Sutton that was misplayed by rightfielder Nick Swisher for an error and an RBI double by Elliot Johnson before Russell Martin homered in the bottom of the inning. Sutton also had a two-run double in the fourth.
A-Rod had a particularly rough night, committing a throwing error that led to a pair of unearned runs in the third inning before the big strikeout in the fifth.
Sabathia (7-3, 3.69) wasn't bad but couldn't match Price and five Tampa Bay relievers. Sabathia allowed five runs (three earned) and seven hits in seven innings, walked one and struck out a season-high 12.
The lefthander had a built-in alibi because of the Rodriguez error that led to the two runs that broke a 1-1 tie, but he shrugged it off. "It's a part of the game, and these guys have been playing great defense all year,'' Sabathia said of a defense that, despite two errors, has committed an MLB-low 22 in 56 games. "It's frustrating not being able to make pitches and pick these guys up.''
Twelve strikeouts indicated a more dominant performance than Sabathia turned in.
"I think today's game was the sum of my season,'' he said. "Inconsistent.''
The offense certainly can relate.
With Greg Logan