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Hiroki Kuroda exits early as Yankees lose to Rays

Yankees starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda reacts against the

Yankees starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda reacts against the Tampa Bay Rays during the third inning of an MLB baseball game at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

What was billed as a pivotal stretch for the Yankees has turned into a major buzz kill, leaving them very much on the outside of the postseason picture with time running out on Derek Jeter's final season.

The Yankees' playoff chances remain mathematically alive, but after yet another loss Tuesday night -- 4-3 to the Rays -- they look nothing like a team with plans for October baseball.

With 20 games to go, the Yankees (73-69) fell 51/2 games behind the Tigers for the second wild-card spot.

"We have to win every day,'' Joe Girardi said. "We can't worry about the other teams if we don't win.''

Blame their third loss in four games and sixth in nine on a rough outing by Hiroki Kuroda (four runs in 31/3 innings) and an offense that again couldn't get the big hit. The Yankees also believe a new interpretation of the block-the-plate rule cost them a run.

Stephen Drew was thrown out trying to score the tying run on Jacoby Ellsbury's single in the fifth, but Girardi said he had nowhere to slide because Ryan Hanigan blocked the entire plate.

Earlier in the day, Major League Baseball sent a memo to teams clarifying the rule, saying catchers can block the plate if the ball clearly arrives before the runner. Leftfielder Matt Joyce's throw beat Drew by about a second, but Drew said he didn't have enough time to decide how to slide.

"You almost have to encourage the runner to run him over, and that's what they're trying to get away from,'' Girardi said. He was so frustrated that he said he later encouraged his players to do just that if the scenario comes up again. Drew said if he had to do it all over again, he would have collided with Hanigan.

"We're just not really sure,'' Mark Teixeira said. "Looking back, the only way you can score is to run him over. But that's what they're trying to get away from.''

Yet perhaps the Yankees shouldn't have been in that position.

Former Met Chris Young, making his first start in pinstripes, had just hit a two-run single, cutting the deficit to 4-3. With two on and none out, Ellsbury -- who homered in the fourth -- lined a single to leftfield, and coach Rob Thomson aggressively waved Drew home.

Girardi said Thomson was wrong to send Drew because "you can't make the first out at home,'' and Thomson agreed.

"Just a bad send, an error on my judgment,'' Thomson said.

After Drew was called out -- and the call was held up on review -- the still-promising inning went downhill, almost on cue. There were still runners on first and second and one out, but the Yankees couldn't push across the tying run. Instead, Jeter lined into a tough-luck double play, hitting a hard shot right at second baseman Ben Zobrist, who doubled Young off second.

The Yankees never threatened again, with only one baserunner in the final four innings.

They were in that predicament because Kuroda gave up four runs and nine hits in 31/3 innings, his shortest outing since May 2013.

"This leaves us in a pretty big hole,'' Girardi said. "Basically, we need to win every day. That's the bottom line.''

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