Derek Jeter got the Yankees' offense off to a roaring start on Thursday night, driving Jeff Niemann's very first pitch of the game into center field for a leadoff double -- career hit No. 2,998.
That was the Yankees' highlight of the night, however, as Niemann and two relievers combined to hold the Bronx Bombers to a paltry one run on six hits in a 5-1 Tampa Bay Rays victory.
"There was a lot of electricity," said Mark Teixeira. "I wish we could have played better. We were pretty flat tonight."
Niemann (4-4, 4.53 ERA) surrendered only a sixth-inninng solo home run by Robinson Cano in 7 1/3 strong innings. Juan Cruz got the final two outs of the eighth, and former Yankee Kyle Farnsworth shut the door in the ninth.
The Yankees admitted that in addition to his stuff, Niemann's size (6-foot-9) presented a challenge.
"It's tough when he was locating his fastball up, and then throwing his offspead pitches down," said Teixeira, who was 0-for-2 on the night with two walks. "And when you have a guy who's 6-8 or however tall he is, maybe even bigger than that, it's just a weird look. And he was using the top and bottom of the zone really well tonight."
"It was the first time we faced him this year," said Nick Swisher, who was 0-for-4 with a couple of strikeouts. "When you've got a guy like that, who's coming downhill, he did a good job -- you've gotta tip your hat."
Swisher wasn't the only Yankee to go hitless on the night. Alex Rodriguez was also 0-for-4, including a strikeout. And Curtis Granderson -- who had hit four home runs in his past five games -- was 0-for-4 as well, with a couple of K's.
"He was really big for us tonight," said Rays manager Joe Maddon of Niemann. "The Yankees have a tendency of wearing out bullpens. I thought that he was pitch-efficient and was in good shape heading into that last inning. His mound demeanor and the confidence in his curve was good."
Lost in all the hoopla surrounding Jeter's quest for career hit No. 3,000 is that the Yankees have now lost four of five. And this loss, coupled with Boston's 10-4 win over Baltimore on Thursday night, dropped the Yankees out of first place, a half-game behind the Red Sox at 51-35.
And don't forget about these Rays (49-39), who now find themselves just three games behind the Yankees, with three more games in the Bronx this weekend before the All-Star break.
On Friday night, the Yankees will throw the very hittable Freddy Garcia. And on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the Yanks will face the Rays' top two starters, David Price and James Shields. So, if the Yankees aren't careful, they could be reeling by the time we reach the Midsummer Classic.
But on this night, when more attention was paid to Jeter coming up short than the team, the manager chalked the loss up to not taking advantage of some early opportunities.
"We had a couple chances -- first and third (with) one out, and then second and third (with) one out," said Joe Girardi. "And when we don't break though, he seemed to get on a roll after that."