NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees lost a chance to sweep the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday night, and in the process vault into first place in the AL East for the first time since April 25, and it would be easy to round up the usual suspects for their 7-3 defeat.
Once again, they didn't hit in the clutch. Once again, they failed with the bases loaded. Once again, it was the guys they expect to do the most -- Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson -- who wound up doing the least.
And while that might provide an answer to what brought them down in this game, it also obscures another problem, one that might turn to be bigger than all the Yankees' hitting woes put together.
That is the problem of CC Sabathia, who is the nominal ace of their pitching staff but has rarely pitched like one this season.
That is not to say Sabathia has been a bad pitcher; quite the contrary. Even with the 7-3 loss to the Rays and their own ace, David Price, Sabathia has a 7-3 record and 3.69 ERA.
But how many times after a Sabathia start have we heard this: "He kept us in the game."
Or this: "He didn't quite have his fastball command tonight."
Or this: "I thought he threw pretty well," with the emphasis on the word "pretty," rather than "well."
In fact, Sabathia assessed his outing better than anyone when he said, "I think today's game was just the sum of my season. Inconsistent."
Taken as a whole, Sabathia's season has been remarkably consistent. In a dozen starts, he has gone eight full innings four times, worked into the eighth inning another, and finished seven innings in three others. In no start has he left before six innings were completed.
And before this game, in which he also worked seven innings, he had only allowed five runs once, in his first start of the season, also against the Rays.
And yet, he has yet to put up one true, ace-caliber lockdown start. He hasn't thrown anything close to the game Ivan Nova threw Wednesday night (eight-plus innings, one earned run), or Andy Pettitte threw on Tuesday (7 1/3 innings, zero runs), let alone the complete-game four-hitter Phil Hughes hurled on Sunday.
In fact, in a week in which the four other Yankees starters all threw gems (Hiroki Kuroda allowed two runs in seven innings in a 4-3 loss to the Tigers on Saturday), Sabathia's game was the worst of the week.
The strange thing is, there were times in this game when he was brilliant. He struck out a season-high 12, including four in a row at one point. Of the 21 outs he got, 17 came either by strikeout or ground out.
And yet, there were other innings in which he was extremely hittable.
This is what Sabathia meant when he called himself "inconsistent." Not over the course of the season, but within the same game.
He was victimized in the second inning by an opposite-field bloop off the bat of Jose Lobaton, a .211 hitter, for the Rays' first run, and got no help from his field when Rodriguez sailed a throw on a routine grounder to give the Rays an extra out in the third.
Still, teams count upon their aces to overcome things like that. Instead, Sabathia immediately surrendered two rockets, an RBI single to Ben Zobrist and a long double by Desmond Jennings, followed by a sacrifice fly to B.J. Upton to give the Rays a 3-0 lead. Technically, the runs may not have been earned but they still came courtesy of Sabathia, who was unable to quell the threat.
"It's part of the game," Sabathia said of A-Rod's error. "These guys have been playing great defense all year. It's a little frustrating not being able to pick up the guys."
The fourth inning was Sabathia's game, and season, in a nutshell. He struck out the side -- and allowed two more runs, on three hard-hit balls: singles by Lobaton and Matt Joyce, and a two-run double by Drew Sutton, a .219 hitter, that was played rather clumsily by Jayson Nix, who allowed it to bounce off his chest in left field.
"I really don't know how I got that one," Sutton said. "It was a surprise to me. I was really just hoping to get something with a guy like Sabathia starting."
The pitch to Sutton, a 1-2 slider that is usually death to a hitter, was the one that seemed to haunt Sabathia after the game.
"If I make a pitch there," he said, "then we're in a good spot."
But he didn't, they weren't, and Price had all the runs he would need, despite laboring through a fifth inning in which -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- the Yankees loaded the bases with one out, and with A-Rod and Cano coming up.
But Price won a 10-pitch battle with Rodriguez, getting him to swing over a curveball, and got Cano to ground out to second to end the inning. That inning was the difference between Price and Sabathia; needing to make a pitch, the Rays' ace came up with two of them -- out of a 38-pitch inning -- to come away unscathed.
As a result, the matchup Joe Girardi had said before the game he expected to be a "great pitcher's duel" turned out to be half of that. And now, in seven meetings between the Rays' ace and the Yankees' ace, Tampa has come away the winner six times. Head to head, Price is now 4-1 over Sabathia.
"That's been the story of my season so far," Sabathia said. "Get off to a good start, then struggle for a while, then feel good at the end. I just need to put together a good game, go out there and dominate somebody."
Although the record says CC Sabathia is having a very good year, he knows he hasn't dominated anyone yet. That is not the pitcher the Yankees gave an extension and a raise to in the offseason, and it is not the pitcher they expected to carry them further than their first-round exit from the playoffs last year.
You can point all the fingers you want at the Yankees' high-priced batting order, make all the excuses you like about errors and poor luck, and you might even fool a lot of people.
But you won't fool CC Sabathia, who knows the difference between a good pitcher, even a very good pitcher, and an ace.
"That's a good lineup, a good team," he said. "But I need to do better and make better pitches against those guys."
Those guys, and everyone else.