Bullpen can't fend off Rays in extras

Bullpen can't save Yanks in extras

NEW YORK -- The frustrating part of this loss for Yankees manager Joe Girardi was that his relievers had spent the better part of Wednesday evening vindicating his faith in them. Rather than implode, as they had in so many of the team's previous games, they dug their feet into the Yankee Stadium ground and held.

But it lasted for only so long.

By the time Phil Coke, the fourth Yankees reliever, took the mound, Girardi had exhausted his supply of unlikely success stories. And so he barely had time to cringe when Carlos Pena smashed Coke's second pitch over the right-field wall, sending the Yankees to a 4-3 loss to the Rays in 10 innings.

"We found another way to lose tonight," the game's near-hero, Mark Teixeira, said.

In truth, it was the same way they had been losing -- only colored in a slightly different hue. The Yankees were down for most of the game and came back to tie it, only to watch it wash away like water through their cupped hands.

Coke was the box-score culprit, serving up the game-winning home run to Pena in the 10th. But his fastball on the outer half was hardly a pitch he'd come to regret. Had Pena whiffed, it would have popped into Jose Molina's mitt in the precise spot that Coke had intended. But Pena didn't whiff and the pitch never got there, instead landing some distance up the first deck in right.

"That's why it's a game of failure," Coke said. "I thought it was a well-executed pitch, and obviously, he had a well-executed swing."

Baseball's leading home run hitter has a history of them.

"I never want to tip my cap to the hitter," Coke said. "It doesn't matter whether he puts a good swing on it or not, I'm better than that. I feel as though I let my team down, and that's a tough one to swallow."

In large part, it was tough, because the Yankees had survived three innings out of a shaky bullpen, and New York had stormed back into the game on Teixeira's three-run double in the eighth. So what if the slumping first baseman had broken his bat on the pitch, and so what if the Yankees had caught a lucky break when it rattled perfectly around the left-field corner. A hit is a hit, and that was a big one.

"You think that might be the big hit that gets us rolling as a club," Girardi said.

A rain delay gave the Yankees 28 minutes to reflect upon that good fortune, but not long after the tarp came off the field, Pena jarred them out of their revelry.

Everything had gone right -- scoreless innings from Edwar Ramirez, Jonathan Albaladejo and Mariano Rivera, and a clutch hit from Teixeira -- but the final score had gone wrong.

Circumstances might have been different had A.J. Burnett managed to complete six innings in fewer than 114 pitches. Then again, circumstances for Burnett might have been different had a Ramiro Pena error not tacked almost two dozen pitches onto his line in the first. Featuring some of his best stuff of the season, Burnett battled. But he did not give the Yankees length.

Like Coke, Burnett made it a point after the game to note that he was not particularly worried. On another night, his outing might have been good enough.

"When it clicks, it's going to click," Burnett said. "And it's going to be ridiculous."

And that much seems to be certain. The Yankees have too much talent to dawdle around the .500 mark for long.

But at what point do they worry? It's closing in on mid-May, and the Red Sox have spent the better part of this season flexing their American League muscle. The Rays have faltered, but they seem rather intent on improving at the Yankees' expense. And the Bombers found out last year that the gig is up on their long-running cat-and-mouse game with the rest of the AL East. Slow starts can no longer be dismissed with a shrug.

"It's not something you enjoy," Girardi said. "But the one thing you can't do is you can't panic."

Girardi had spent much of his pregame time defending his bullpen, which ranked 28th in the Majors in ERA heading into the game. And for a time, that group made him look awfully shrewd.

So for now, the Yankees can find security in the fact that Alex Rodriguez is probably due back this weekend, and in the fact that Teixeira seems to be shaking the cobwebs off his bat. But barely four weeks into the season, New York has trimmed away much of its margin for error.

Pena hacked off yet another piece on Wednesday, and the Yankees could do nothing more than shrug.

"No losses are enjoyable," Girardi said. "But that's a tough loss, because we had a chance to win again."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.