CC Sabathia reacts in the dugout after being taken out...

CC Sabathia reacts in the dugout after being taken out of the game against the Tampa Bay Rays. (Sept. 23, 2010) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Neither of the pitchers was anything close to as sharp as they had been when they met 10 days earlier.

But while David Price still was pretty good, CC Sabathia turned in one of his worst starts of the season in the Yankees' 10-3 loss to the Rays last night in front of 47,646 at the Stadium.

"Just one of those nights," said Sabathia, who allowed a season-worst seven runs.

After losing the first two games of the four-game series, Tampa Bay won the last two and captured the season series 10-8. The Yankees have a half-game lead over the Rays, and if the teams end the season tied, Tampa Bay will win the AL East title based on head-to-head play.

The Yankees have a much tougher road the rest of the way with a home series against the Red Sox and road series against the Blue Jays and Red Sox. The Rays finish with home series against the Mariners and Orioles and then play four against the Royals in Kansas City.

"It would have been nice to win this series to give us a little bit of an edge," said Mark Teixeira, who snapped an 0-for-19 skid with a third-inning double. "But at the same time, we have three big series left. We have a chance to finish it off and reach our goal. We just have to work a little bit harder now."

Given leads of 2-0 and 3-1, Sabathia couldn't hold either, allowing six runs in a seven-run sixth inning. To be fair, he didn't get much help in the sixth from Joba Chamberlain, who entered a 4-3 game with the bases loaded and allowed a two-run double by B.J. Upton and a two-run single by Carl Crawford that made it 8-3.

"Our job as the bullpen is to minimize the damage,'' Chamberlain said, "and it was frustrating to give up C's runs and to not give us a chance to come back."

In his previous 21 starts, Sabathia was 16-3 with a 2.53 ERA. But he allowed the seven runs and 10 hits, one away from tying his season worst, in 51/3 innings.

Price (18-6, 2.84 ERA), getting a leg up on Sabathia (20-7, 3.26) in the race for the AL Cy Young Award - though the Mariners' Felix Hernandez is very much in the mix - allowed three runs and eight hits in six innings, stranding nine baserunners.

But Sabathia, who said he feels fine physically, didn't blame the offense for leaving runners or the bullpen's performance - which included a nightmarish seventh for Javier Vazquez in which he hit three straight batters.

"I'm definitely disappointed," Sabathia said. "It's a big game. We're trying to win this division, it's our main goal. These guys put some tough at-bats on Price, scored some runs. He's been good all year and I wasn't able to come through. I feel bad. I feel like I let these guys down."

The evening was a far cry from Sept. 13, when Sabathia and Price each pitched eight scoreless innings in Tampa Bay's 11-inning, 1-0 win.

Sabathia's disastrous inning came immediately after the Yankees went ahead 3-1 in the fifth on Nick Swisher's single but couldn't score again despite loading the bases with one out. "Missed opportunity for us to blow the game open," Joe Girardi said.

He added, "We're basically back to where we started on April 1, with a lot less games to play. We're still trying to win our division and we're still trying to get home-field advantage. You win the first two, looks like you have a good chance to win the series, but we didn't and you have to move on."

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