"I think we haven't played our best baseball," said Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. "That's what I take away from it. We have to get better; our situational hitting has not been good. That's something that we take a lot of pride in doing."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi opined that his team could "very easily have won five of these games," and Rodriguez praised the Yankees' pitching, but even as they enjoyed a return to form from starter Phil Hughes on Wednesday, the right-hander's two biggest mistakes burned them.
Johnson's seventh-inning two-run homer cleared the right-field wall and followed an earlier two-run shot in the fifth inning, as the designated hitter jumped into the spotlight with his fourth and fifth home runs of the season on a pair of similar Hughes fastballs.
"Once you've done it a couple of times, you feel like you're going to do it every time," Johnson said. "That's just a great feeling all around, especially when you know it just put you ahead, and the way your pitchers have been going, it's probably enough to win the game."
Hughes said he tried to aim his pitch on the first home run toward Johnson's belt, but it dipped into hittable territory. On the second pitch, Hughes wanted it down and away, but it ran back over the plate.
"It was two mistakes out over the plate to the same guy," Hughes said. "What are you going to do? Those are spots where I really didn't make a good pitch. ... You're not surprised. He's got power, that's why he's there."
Tampa Bay made the lead hold up, as Grant Balfour pitched out of trouble in the eighth inning and Rafael Soriano iced the Yankees in the ninth to record his 43rd save.
Curtis Granderson had launched a two-run homer of his own in the seventh, giving the Yankees a short-lived 3-2 lead -- a parting blow after Rays manager Joe Maddon was ejected arguing a phantom hit-by-pitch of Derek Jeter, who had squared to bunt before Chad Qualls appeared to hit him near the left elbow.
Actually, as Jeter would later admit, the ball hit his bat, but he wasn't about to inform home-plate umpire Lance Barksdale -- especially after Barksdale had already awarded him first base.
"He told me to go to first," Jeter said. "I'm not going to tell him, 'I'm not going to go to first,' you know? My job is to get on base."
"There's no question about it, we want to win the division. I don't want to downplay that at all. I think that's important to us. We know what home-field advantage means for us, we saw what it did for our October last year. But we're in a situation right now where the first and most important thing is to get our team healthy."
-- Alex Rodriguez
Maddon's lengthy argument earned him the thumb, and the Yankees thought they might have the last laugh as Jeter remained aboard to touch home plate when Granderson's home run snuck over the wall.
But there was also hope early. Continuing to fight his second-half struggles, Hughes seemed to be back in All-Star form, retiring the first 12 Rays to face him before Evan Longoria notched a single opening the fifth.
Hughes was happy with the majority of his pitches, particularly the incorporation of his diving changeup, but the Johnson homers dented his line. Hughes exited after 6 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on six hits.
"It's tough. It's an important game and he pitched extremely well," Girardi said. "You make two mistakes and you get beat."
Though he did not figure into the decision, James Shields proved to be a tough customer once again. A first-inning run was all the Yankees were able to touch the right-hander for over 6 1/3 strong innings.
In the first inning, Jeter led off with a single and stole second base. Mark Teixeira legged out an infield hit to move Jeter to third base and Robinson Cano cashed the run with a single to left field, Cano's career-high 99th RBI of the year.
But Shields snapped off a curveball that Lance Berkman rolled over on for an inning-ending double play, and A-Rod said later, "You had a feeling that would come back and haunt us a little bit."
"When you have a situation like that on the road, I think it's important to capitalize and maybe score two or three runs," Rodriguez said.
Keeping the line moving has proven difficult. As Girardi pointed out after the game, the Yankees' lineup is more formidable with both Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher in it, a pair of outfielders who did not start in the Rays series due to injuries.
"Those are two guys that are experienced in our lineup that we don't have," Girardi said. "Our lineup looks a little bit different with them in it, but we didn't have them. You have to find a way to overcome that."
Both players are expected back when the rivals re-engage for a four-game showdown next week, offering more chances to answer those lingering questions as the Yankees continue their taut race for the AL East.
"There's no question about it, we want to win the division," Rodriguez said. "I don't want to downplay that at all. I think that's important to us. We know what home-field advantage means for us, we saw what it did for our October last year. But we're in a situation right now where the first and most important thing is to get our team healthy."