NEW YORK — Right-hander Alex Cobb wasn't fazed in his Yankee Stadium debut Wednesday night, remaining calm and composed while allowing just two runs over the first seven innings.
But with how badly the offense has been struggling, pitchers have had little to no margin for error.
That was the case in the Rays' 4-1 loss to the Yankees as they were held to fewer than five hits for the sixth time in their past 10 games. As a result, Tampa Bay fell out of first place in the American League East and into third for the first time since April 23, having dropped seven of its past 10 in the midst of a frustrating scoring funk.
"I don't think anybody in here is really pressing," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "We know it's a long year, we've just got to go out there and grind it out every day. We're pretty good at bouncing back, and that's just what we have to do right now.
"We're not swinging the bats the way we want, but we'll find a way. Hopefully we can turn it around sooner rather than later."
Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova continued his baffling of the Rays (31-25), allowing one hit (a Desmond Jennings leadoff single) through the first seven innings. Though he had allowed five earned runs in three of his four previous starts, Nova moved to 4-0 with a 2.82 ERA in six career appearances against Tampa Bay.
"You look at his numbers, and I can't believe they're accurate because every time we see him, he looks like that," manager Joe Maddon said. "He was outstanding."
So was Cobb (2-2), who pitched out of the stretch once in the first seven innings. He was, as Maddon called him, a "ground ball machine," locating his fastball well and mixing in his changeup, not using his curveball until the middle of the game.
"He pitched well enough to win that game," Maddon said.
In the first seven innings, the Yankees' only hits were solo homers by Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano, whose line drive in the fourth barely got over the rightfield wall. They were the first two homers Cobb had allowed in four starts.
"I definitely didn't think homer," Cobb said of Cano's blast. "But I've heard stories of the short porch out in right, and got a little taste of it."
Despite the Rays' lack of hits, they put runners on third base with two outs in the fourth and eighth, but they failed to score. In the fourth, Hideki Matsui hit a flyout to the centerfield warning track, one of several balls he has hit hard "without any real luck," Maddon said.
The Yankees added two key insurance runs off Cobb in the eighth thanks to three consecutive hits. That loomed large as Jennings led off the ninth with a triple and Upton followed with a triple to chase Nova and prevent the Rays' third shutout of the season.
But former Rays closer Rafael Soriano came in to shut the door, putting the Yankees (31-24) ahead of the Rays and just a half-game behind the Orioles (32-24) in the crowded AL East.
"It was an old-fashioned pitchers' duel for a while there," Upton said. "We tried to make a late charge, it just didn't happen."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.