Needing a victory to become the first Major League club this season to clinch a playoff spot, the Yankees were handcuffed by Angels left-hander Joe Saunders, the sum total of their offense limited to home runs from Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui.
Otherwise, New York went quietly against Saunders, who was two outs from a complete game before walking off the field to a standing ovation from the crowd of 38,667. The Yankees lost for the 18th time in 23 games at Angel Stadium.
"It's a bump in the road, but it happens," Derek Jeter said. "You work your way through it -- that's the bottom line. Those things happen, and you're not going to go out there and win every day. We just couldn't get anything going offensively."
Coming back after skipping one turn through the rotation to alleviate fatigue in his left shoulder, Pettitte showed signs of rust in the first inning, quickly running up his pitch count as he cut his pitches toward the meaty part of home plate.
Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter connected for back-to-back RBI doubles to stake the Angels to an early advantage, and even though Pettitte would iron out the kinks and log a quality start, it wasn't enough to prevent his first loss since July 25.
"I don't think anybody has worried about Andy all year," Nick Swisher said. "Mr. Pettitte has done a tremendous job for us, and he pitched well tonight. We just couldn't get the runs for him."
Brian Fuentes got the last two outs, as the Yankees fared 0-for-12 with men on base and fell to 9-18 against the Angels since the start of 2007.
"I thought our approach was good," manager Joe Girardi said. "I thought we hit a lot of balls hard tonight. We didn't have a lot of luck. Sometimes it's not how you hit it, it's where you hit it. They made some good plays."
Pettitte settled in after his first-inning problems, retiring 11 straight batters before issuing a one-out walk to Robb Quinlan in the fifth inning. Jeff Mathis singled and Erick Aybar drilled a run-scoring hit through the left side of the infield, putting the Angels up, 3-0.
Completing the sixth inning and reporting that his shoulder felt strong enough to continue pitching, Pettitte was instead pulled after 91 pitches.
"To tell you the truth, I felt good, so I really wasn't too concerned about it," Pettitte said. "The last time it fired up on me was the fourth or fifth inning in my last start, so that was kind of the big barometer for me."
The next call went to Brian Bruney for the seventh inning, with Girardi reasoning that the reliever needs opportunities to straighten himself out.
Pinch-hitter Kendry Morales had other ideas, launching a long solo home run into the right-field seats to match Rodriguez's homer to left field off Saunders in the top half of the inning.
Matsui cracked a pinch-hit homer to center field in the eighth, the first of his career, but Jonathan Albaladejo gave up a run-scoring double to Juan Rivera in the bottom half that put the Angels up by three runs.
That provided the final margin of victory, as Saunders came close to finishing his gem, holding New York to seven hits.
"I threw the ball well tonight, especially against a great hitting club like they are," Saunders said. "I didn't have my best stuff tonight, but I located when I needed to and got some big double plays."
It didn't go the Yankees' way yet again in Anaheim, but even the perpetually critical Pettitte had to admit it could have been a lot worse, especially with the October pitching rotation coming closer into view.
"Obviously, I don't want to stand out there and be hurting," Pettitte said. "There's no doubt I'm happy that I felt good. It's definitely a positive."
The Yankees' magic number to clinch a playoff spot remained at one with the Rangers' victory at Oakland. New York maintains a five-game lead in the American League East over the Red Sox but has lost six of its past 10 games.
Girardi has said that he senses frustration among his players during the recent skid, particularly for not performing up to the standards of a club with the best record in the game.
"We have to start winning series," Girardi said. "We haven't done it for a while, and that's not who we've been this year. Now is a good time to try to get a game tomorrow and win a series. We need to play better."