"We gave them extra outs today," manager Joe Girardi said. "That was the difference in the game. We gave them two or three extra outs, and they capitalized on them.
"You can't give teams extra outs and expect to win games. It makes it extremely difficult on your starting pitcher. It builds up the pitch count quicker than you want to. You're not able to get him through six that way. If you're going to do that, you're going to lose games."
The defeat pushed the Yankees 12 games behind the division-leading Rays, while they remain nine games behind the Red Sox in the AL Wild Card race with 15 games left in the regular season.
It appeared that New York (77-70) was going to catch a break in the fifth inning. Tampa Bay's Justin Ruggiano had taken a jump from first base and got caught between first and second as the throw went to Jason Giambi, who assumed Ruggiano would attempt to come back. He read the play wrong. Ruggiano took off and came away with a stolen base to get himself into scoring position. Jason Bartlett brought him home with a line drive to right field in the following at-bat.
The Bombers again gave the Rays (88-57) an extra chance in the sixth inning, as they mismanaged a fly ball from Michel Hernandez. Johnny Damon tried to regain his focus on the hit after losing sight of it, and Bobby Abreu slid to the ground in an attempt to make the catch, but the ball slipped away from his glove and Hernandez reached base and eventually scored.
"When we were in the field, if we didn't throw up a zero, we knew it was going to be tough," Mussina said. "They got a couple in the fifth, and I knew we were going to have a struggle the rest of the game."
Mussina (17-9) kept the Rays' offense quiet early, holding Tampa Bay to two runs and four hits through four innings. But the righty fell into trouble in the fifth against a lineup loaded with right-handers. With runners on first and second, he intentionally loaded the bases with no outs, but he couldn't escape the jam before the Rays added three runs to their lead to post a 5-0 advantage. Mussina's five-inning appearance marked his shortest outing since July 28, as he picked up his second consecutive loss.
The defeat came despite a special day for the right-hander. Mussina fanned five through the first two innings and added another in the fourth to pass Cy Young for sole possession of 19th place on baseball's all-time strikeout list. But just after he tied the pitching legend, Mussina surrendered a double to Ruggiano that drove in two runs to put the Rays on the scoreboard first.
"It was a tough day for me," Mussina said. "I didn't have my best stuff, and they took advantage of it when I got in bad counts. They used the field well, and they got big hits when they had guys on base.
"We had a tough time getting anything going, so any time I gave up a run or two, it really hurt us."
The Yankees struggled to generate an offensive spark through most of the contest. The bats warmed up enough to produce three hits in the ninth inning, but in the opener of a three-game series, the Bombers managed just five hits off Rays starter James Shields (13-8), and they didn't put a runner in scoring position until the sixth inning.
Derek Jeter's bat provided one of few Bombers bright spots. The shortstop reeled off three hits to extend his total at Yankee Stadium to 1,263, just six shy of Lou Gehrig's all-time record, with nine games remaining at the ballpark. But the rest of the Bombers didn't have an answer for Shields.
"He gave us some pitches to hit, and we couldn't get anything going," Damon said. "We showed a slight sign of life there in the ninth, but that's a bit too late."
The lack of offense isn't new. The Yankees have posted two runs or fewer in 47 games this season, with an 11-36 record in those contests.
"That really makes it tough," Mussina said. "You really have to pitch lights out to win a lot of games when you're having trouble scoring. I think every team goes through periods of time when they're having trouble scoring, maybe a week or 10 days or a road trip. But we've really struggled most of the season."
The Yankees don't have much time remaining in the regular season to reverse the trend, but the three ninth-inning hits -- including Abreu's 17th long ball -- gave Girardi encouragement about his team's work ethic, as he said his players never gave up.
"When you don't score runs, it always looks like the effort's not very good," Girardi said. "Our guys are fighting through the last inning. The results are not what we want, but our guys are not quitting."