ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Yankees have been so good and so efficient since mid-April that nights like Friday end up as a shock more than anything else.
Through six innings, they had been held in check to the tune of two hits and no runs. The Rays, meanwhile, had accumulated 10 hits. But it was only a two-run deficit, and the kind of late-inning rally characteristic of the 2018 Yankees seemed inevitable.
This night it wasn’t to be, though. They scored one run in the seventh inning on Aaron Judge’s RBI single but managed only five hits in falling to the Rays, 2-1, in front of 27,252 at Tropicana Field.
“Always,” CC Sabathia said of his confidence in the offense breaking through at some point. “Even in the ninth . . . any time we’re at bat, you feel we’re going to score runs.”
The AL East-leading Yankees (50-23) lost for only the fifth time in their last 22 games. Their lead over the Red Sox was cut to one game as Boston rallied from a 10-5 deficit and pounded 20 hits in a 14-10 victory over Seattle.
There were opportunities throughout for the Yankees but not many critical hits against the Rays, who went with a “bullpen game.” Righty Ryan Stanek pitched one inning before five relievers followed him to the mound. Lefthander Ryan Yarbrough (6-3) starred, allowing one hit in 3 1⁄3 shutout innings.
“They beat us today,” Brett Gardner said, downplaying the impact of the Rays’ bullpen strategy, one they’ve used a lot this season, including once last week in the Bronx. “I don’t think it had anything to do with the order of the pitchers being used.”
The Yankees went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position, including 0-for-6 in the first two innings, and stranded nine runners. After Miguel Andujar singled to begin the ninth, Gleyber Torres flied out to deep leftfield. Gardner got ahead of Sergio Romo 3-and-0 but took a sinker for a called strike and then a slider for a strike before grounding into a double play on a sinker to end the game.
“I hit it right to the spot where I could make two outs with one swing,” Gardner said. “Just frustrated with that last at-bat.”
Sabathia (4-3), who got into plenty of trouble but was mostly successful in getting out of it, allowed two runs (one earned) and nine hits in 5 1⁄3 innings.
The Yankees got on the board in the seventh. Judge — who took two questionable third strikes in his first two at-bats and even showed some emotion by looking at the ground while commenting to plate umpire Phil Cuzzi after the third-inning strikeout — flared an RBI single to right off Chaz Roe. But Giancarlo Stanton grounded out to put runners on second and third and Didi Gregorius grounded out to end the inning.
The Yankees did have their share of hard-hit balls, including two rockets by Gary Sanchez that were caught in the middle of the warning track in center his first two times up.
“I thought we put some swings on balls early with runners out there,” Aaron Boone said. “The ball Gary hit with two on in the first, close to clipping that one. Gardy lines out to end the next inning with runners on. Thought we had some decent at-bats with runners out there. We just couldn’t break through tonight.”
The Rays (35-40) broke through in the fourth. Daniel Robertson, activated from the disabled list earlier in the day, doubled with one out and scored on Willy Adames’ single to right.
The Rays tacked on an unearned run in the fifth, an inning that started with two infield singles, the first of which Sabathia compounded with a throwing error. Stanton made a terrific grab against the rightfield wall to rob C.J. Cron of an extra-base hit, but the sacrifice fly made it 2-0.