Joe Girardi knows his Yankees will not get far if CC Sabathia keeps struggling.
Sabathia faded in his matchup against fellow lefty ace David Price and the Tampa Bay Rays hung on to beat New York 6-4 Friday night to stay close in the AL East.
"He's a big factor, and he has been since he's been here in 2009," Girardi said. "He's been the leader of our staff."
The Yankees lost for the fourth straight time with their burly ace on the mound, and this one could send them out of first place in the East for the first time since June 11. The division co-leading Orioles played later at wild-card leading Oakland.
Sabathia was sharp early, allowing only a single through four innings. But he lost control of his breaking ball in the fifth and was done after allowing six hits, two wild pitches, two walks and four runs in 6 2-3 innings. He gave up a lead in his fifth straight outing.
"Just not making pitches," Sabathia said, identifying his problem. "I mean, that fifth inning, I had two strikes a couple of times and didn't make a pitch to get out of the inning."
Price got stronger as the game went on and earned his league-leading 18th win with another superb performance against the Yankees.
The Rays began the day four games behind Baltimore and New York.
Out of the rotation since Sept. 2 because of a sore shoulder, Price (18-5) boosted his AL Cy Young Award credentials with seven innings of two-run ball. Striking out six and giving up five hits, the lanky lefty got a big lift from an inadvertent deflection off an umpire and a fine play by second baseman Elliot Johnson.
Price improved to 7-3 against the Yankees. The Rays have won seven of the eight games he has matched up against Sabathia.
"He was really good," Rays manager Joe Maddon said about Price. "He got better with the game in progress."
With Price out of the game, Alex Rodriguez hit his 647th homer, a two-run shot off Joel Peralta in the eighth that sent him past Lou Gehrig for ninth place on the runs list with 1,889 and scored Derek Jeter to make it 5-4.
Jeter, serving as the designated hitter for a second straight day because of an injured ankle, singled leading off to wake up the 45,200 fans that were silenced by Tampa Bay's rally against Sabathia (13-6). Jeter had an infield single in the fifth to pass Willie Mays for 10th on the hits list with 3,284.
After a walk to Robinson Cano, closer Fernando Rodney entered. The top reliever by ERA in the majors (0.68) struck out Russell Martin, threw a wild pitch and walked pinch hitter Raul Ibanez. Curtis Granderson meekly grounded to end the threat and send many to the exits.
Rodney finished with a perfect ninth for his 43rd save in 45 chances.
B.J. Upton homered off Cody Eppley leading off the eighth to make it 5-2.
Coming off a frustrating three-game sweep at the hands of the Orioles, Maddon bemoaned his ballclub's inability to get the clutch hits in support of a stellar staff.
The bottom of the order helped turn that around.
Sabathia cruised into the fifth, allowing only hit in the first, but Chris Gimenez led off with a double for Tampa Bay's second hit. Gimenez advanced to third on a wild pitch and Carlos Pena walked. Johnson, the No. 9 batter, had an RBI single and Desmond Jennings followed with a run-scoring hit.
Another wild pitch put runners on second and third and the third run scored on Evan Longoria's double-play grounder.
Granderson immediately pulled New York to 3-2 with his 38th homer, a drive that a just eluded the glove of a leaping Upton and bounced off the top of the wall and into the Yankees bullpen in right-center.
With one out Eduardo Nunez hit a hard grounder down the third base line that caught umpire Jerry Meals on the right knee as he tried to jump out of the way — as he came down, Meals smoothly motioned the ball was fair. It landed near the shortstop.
Whether or not the fans knew the ball deflected off the umpire who made an incorrect call to end a Yankees' loss in Baltimore a week ago, they booed heartily when Nunez ended up only on first base.
"I said to home plate umpire Scott Barry 'That might be the best play he made in his life,'" Gimenez said. "It was much needed after the series we just had."
But the fans then broke out into a sustained standing ovation when Jeter hit an infield single off Johnson's glove at second base to pass Mays.
"It's kind of tough to think about it now, but yeah, it's pretty special," Jeter said. "Right now, there's a pennant race to think about."
Johnson didn't miss next time, though.
With two outs and runners on first and second, Rodriguez hit a sharp grounder. Johnson, shifted toward second base, made a diving stop in the hole and threw out A-Rod to end the threat.
Steve Pearce gave the Yankees the early lead a with an RBI single.
The Rays added a run in the ninth against Joba Chamberlain when Nunez, filling in at shortstop, made an error on Longoria's routine grounder.
NOTES: Yankees LHP Andy Pettitte (broken left ankle) threw off the main mound, and worked on his pickoff moves and covering first base. He's set to make his first start since late June on Tuesday against Toronto. He'll be limited to about 70 pitches.