Rapid Reaction: Rays 3, Yankees 0

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The New York Yankees lost their first series after four straight series wins with tonight's 3-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, who took two of the three games at home. Excellent pitching from the Rays' Alex Cobb, and one subpar inning from Andy Pettitte, was enough to decide this one.

What it means: Once again, the AL East is a dog fight and the teams are a lot closer to one another than anyone might have expected. Coming off an impressive series in Toronto, the Yankees lose two of three to the Rays, and came within one Ichiro Suzuki single Tuesday night of possibly being swept. Right now, the Red Sox are leading the division at 14-7 and the next three teams -- the Orioles (12-9), Yankees (11-9) and Rays (10-11) -- are bunched up behind them.

Back to earth: After three outstanding starts -- and four terrific innings tonight -- Pettitte turned human, allowing three runs (two earned) in six innings, although he struck out 10 -- the 15th double-digit strikeout game of his career and first since last June 5, against the same team. All the Ks may have elevated Pettitte's pitch count and tired him out; his pitches were up in the zone and much more hittable in the fifth and sixth innings than in the first four. Pettitte's first loss dropped his record to 3-1 but his ERA remains a sparkling 2.22.

Cobb-smacked: The Yankees' mighty left-handed hitting lineup was tamed by Cobb, who held them to just two hits, one of them an infield single by Jayson Nix, until Brett Gardner singled with one out in the ninth. The Yankees had just four baserunners -- aside from Gardner and Nix, Eduardo Nunez singled and Travis Hafner walked -- off Cobb, who went 8 1/3 innings and struck out seven in picking up his third win of the season.

Falling short: Yesterday, the Yankees got the tying runs to second and third with two outs in the ninth off Fernando Rodney, Tuesday night's foil, but Rodney had the last laugh tonight, getting Hafner to pop out for the final out.

Oh-Kaaaay: The first three innings were a strikeout fest, with five for Pettitte and four for Cobb. Pettitte got four more in the next two innings and had nine in five innings; Cobb slowed down and got only two more the rest of the way.

Brennan botch: The Rays' two-run fifth was keyed by a misplay in right field by Brennan Boesch, who hadn't started out there since April 17. Boesch took his eye off Kelly Johnson's single to watch Jose Molina (!), who not only moves at a glacial pace but just got hit by a pitch on his left foot. Still, Boesch watched him and the ball went between his legs, giving the Rays runners at second and third with none out.

Binder bind: Pettitte nearly got himself out of the jam by striking out Desmond Jennings and Ryan Roberts, but faced with a big decision -- walk Ben Zobrist, who came in batting .368 with two homers off Pettitte to load the bases for Evan Longoria (2-20, 11 Ks vs. Pettitte) -- Joe Girardi chose to pitch to Zobrist, who delivered a two-run double. Longoria followed and grounded out, weakly, to end the inning.

Go-far ball: Pettitte's first pitch of the sixth inning was launched over the center-field fence by Sean Rodriguez to give the Rays a 3-0 lead.

There's no E in Nuni: Eduardo Nunez made two outstanding plays at shortstop tonight, including one in which he went deep into the hole and had to borrow Derek Jeter's patented jump throw to nail Molina, who admittedly is not fleet of foot (see above). Whatever happened to the NunEEE we all knew and loved? This one can play some shortstop.

Taking attendance: Tonight's announced crowd -- 19,177 -- was the biggest of the three-game series. The Rays had drawn 25,000-plus for games against the Blue Jays over the weekend.