NEW YORK -- CC Sabathia spent the first four innings and the first three pitches of the fifth on Friday easing concerns about waning velocity and any lingering ailments from two separate stints on the disabled list with elbow and groin issues.
But after getting ahead of Chris Gimenez to start the fifth, Sabathia ran the count full and allowed a double. After getting ahead of Carlos Pena in the next at-bat, he walked the Tampa Bay first baseman. Then the next three batters reached base as Sabathia struggled with control, surrendered a New York lead and took the loss in a 6-4 game against the Rays at Yankee Stadium.
"Things like that, when I'm going good, usually don't happen," Sabathia said.
It did on Friday, when the Yankees dropped their series opener against the Rays. New York, which leads Tampa Bay by three games, remained even with Baltimore in the American League East after the Orioles lost in Oakland.
The Yankees are firmly entrenched in a playoff race they looked like they would run away with in July, when they survived a stretch without their ace to extend their lead atop the division. They have their ace now, but by his own admission, he is not pitching like it.
Sabathia says he is healthy -- manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman do not argue -- and his velocity increased Friday night to 93-94 mph to quiet more recent questions. But location was the issue for Sabathia over 6 2/3 innings and 110 pitches.
The left-hander walked two batters and threw two wild pitches in a three-run fifth inning that gave the Rays a lead they would not relinquish.
"He just looked like he started missing his spots," Girardi said.
Sabathia said he should have dominated, and he looked in control for the first four innings. He allowed a single in the first and hit a batter in the fourth, but the Rays never truly threatened until Gimenez and Pena worked their counts full in the fifth.
Elliot Johnson and Desmond Jennings followed with RBI singles, and Johnson scored on a double play after advancing to third base on one of Sabathia's balls in the dirt.
"In that fifth inning today, I had two strikes a couple times and didn't make the pitch to get out of the inning," Sabathia said. "I needed to get a double play, get a ground ball, different things, and I just wasn't able to make that pitch."
It allowed the Rays to claim a renewed sense of purpose after arriving in New York on the heels of a sweep in Baltimore that allowed the Orioles to remain atop the division with the Yankees while Tampa Bay began to fade.
But although David Price allowed a second-inning run to the Yankees and let Curtis Granderson respond to Tampa Bay's three-run fifth with a solo homer, he otherwise cruised through the Yankees lineup, striking out six in seven innings.
It was the third matchup between Price and Sabathia this season, and the second that Price won, giving him an AL-best 18 wins.
"Yankees, this ballpark, everything that was at stake -- he's done it before and he's done it versus Sabathia before," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
The Yankees threatened with a two-run homer from Alex Rodriguez in the eighth, when Maddon lifted Price after 105 pitches in favor of Joel Peralta, who gave way to Fernando Rodney after the homer for a five-out save.
But the Rays tacked on after Sabathia's fifth inning struggles, chasing him after an RBI single in the seventh, then adding a B.J. Upton homer off Cody Eppley to start the eighth. When Desmond Jennings scored the sixth run on an Eduardo Nunez error, it felt out of reach for New York, and Rodney proved it with a quick 1-2-3 ninth.
It never felt like the typical Sabathia start, with the ace clearly in control and pitching deep into a game that would ensure the Yankees do not lose their perch atop the AL East that they held since June 12.
And Sabathia admitted as much, with improved velocity as little consolation.
"Today should have been a day when I went out and dominated," Sabathia said. "I had good stuff. I was throwing the ball in well, my changeup was good. I just can't go [1-2] on a guy like Gimenez and give up a double and walk Carlos Pena. Stuff like that kills you during the game. No matter whether it's April, September, October, World Series, it kills you."
Steven Miller is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.