Jon Lester carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning and Ivan Nova was knocked out before completing five frames as the Yankees lost their fourth straight game, handed a 7-3 loss by the Red Sox on Saturday at Yankee Stadium.
The defeat marked the first time this season that the Yankees have lost four straight at home. Late home runs from Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez weren't enough to close the gap, as the Yankees' magic number to secure a postseason berth remained at three.
"It's simple -- it starts with our starting pitching," Rodriguez said. "They set the tone for us. They always have, and that's the key to winning games. Starting pitching sets the tone, we play good defense, then we grind out some good at-bats and get timely hitting. We haven't done any of that."
Over a stretch in which manager Joe Girardi has attempted to find rest for regulars -- sparking questions regarding whether his team is content to enter the playoffs as the AL Wild Card -- the Yankees have lost 13 of 23 in September and find themselves looking up at the AL East-leading Rays, who increased their first-place edge to 1 1/2 games with a 9-1 win over the Mariners on Saturday night.
"I haven't managed any different at this time of the year than I have during the course of the season," Girardi said. "I know people have brought up the question about rest, but the one thing I said is I'm not going to hurt our guys.
"That position, for me, is no different in September, July, April. It doesn't change. ... We've got to get in before you ever think about giving people rest, and that's why my philosophy hasn't changed."
On a day when the Yankees invited former NFL head coach Tony Dungy to deliver a motivational speech behind closed doors in the clubhouse, the Red Sox ensured they wouldn't have to watch the Yankees celebrate anything in the Bronx.
"They've got that 'Never say die' attitude, just like everyone else in baseball right now," Granderson said of the Red Sox. "They're definitely not a pushover or a 'gimme' game at this point."
Nova couldn't make it through the fifth inning for the third time in his last five starts, with the rookie right-hander's biggest trouble coming in a three-run Boston third inning.
The Red Sox loaded the bases with no outs in the third, as Nova hit a batter, issued a walk and allowed a single. A visit by pitching coach Dave Eiland followed, and Marco Scutaro sent a run-scoring single up the middle. With activity beginning already in the bullpen, a second run scored on a double-play grounder and David Ortiz lined a run-scoring single just inside the first-base line.
Nova was knocked out in the fifth, as J.D. Drew stroked a two-out ground-rule double and came home when lefty Royce Ring was touched for an Ortiz RBI single. Nova was charged with four runs on four hits in 4 2/3 innings, having walked three and struck out two.
Meanwhile, Lester was on his game. Taking advantage of late-afternoon shadows that poured the shape of the frieze over the mound and infield, Lester faced just one batter over the minimum before Francisco Cervelli finally logged the first Yankees hit in the sixth inning, a line-drive single to left field.
"It was so hard to see for the first five innings," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "He has such good depth on his cutter, it was explosive. You can see that when the shadows went away around the sixth inning, they were able to track the ball a little better."
Cervelli's hit set up runners on first and second with one out for Derek Jeter, who bounced a single through the left side of the infield, extending his season-high hitting streak to 14 games. Austin Kearns was waved around third base, but Daniel Nava came up throwing and Victor Martinez slapped the tag on Kearns' left leg just before he touched home plate.
"It's a quick decision that a third-base coach has to make," Girardi said. "They're tough decisions. You're trying to get a run across the board, perfect throw, bang-bang, he's out. Those are tough calls."
Chad Gaudin surrendered back-to-back home runs to Drew and Martinez in the seventh as the Red Sox opened up a six-run advantage, leaving the Yankees to claw back as Lester exited after seven innings of scoreless, two-hit ball in which he walked three and struck out eight.
"Lester's tough -- he's always tough," A-Rod said. "He's had a phenomenal year, and he's always a handful. Today he got a nice big lead and knew exactly what to do with it."
A pair of Yankees who homered in Friday's loss repeated the feat against Boston relievers, as Granderson slugged his 23rd homer off Daniel Bard in the eighth and A-Rod sent his 28th over the wall facing Hideki Okajima in the ninth.
Rodriguez's homer places him just two blasts away from what would be his 14th season of 30 or more homers and 100 or more RBIs -- small consolation to the Yankees, who would much rather cease treading water and begin seriously planning for the postseason.
"We have seven games left to play, and our club needs to win three games," Girardi said. "That's the bottom line, but we're still in a good spot. If we would have said February 15 that this is where you are, I think all of us would have signed up for it."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.