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Jeff Niemann is terrific, the pen is terrible, the Rays lose their eighth straight.

After another stellar start from AL rookie of the year candidate Jeff Niemann, the Rays went into the eighth inning Wednesday night with a two-run lead.

And given how things have been going lately, that was the worst possible situation for them to be in.

The Rays, numbingly by now, blew another one, extending their season-high losing streak to eight, as the Yankees rallied for a 4-2 win after celebrating Derek Jeter tying Lou Gehrig atop their all-time hits list.

It apparently was Grant Balfour's turn again among the beleaguered bullpen to give up the game-deciding homer, and he did his part. The three-run pinch-hit shot he allowed to Jorge Posada was the third time in his past six outings he has blown a game.

"I haven't executed my pitches, and I've been terrible," Balfour said. "I've been freaking terrible. I don't know what else to tell you. I hope it turns around quick because I'm sick and tired of going out there and feeling like this."

He wasn't alone as the Rays dropped to 72-68 and fell 9-1/2 games behind the AL wild-card leading Red Sox, heading into what once was supposed to be a huge weekend showdown in Boston.

"We're having a hard time," manager Joe Maddon said.

Niemann - in what Maddon called "maybe his best outing all year" - left with a 2-0 lead after allowing a leadoff single to Alex Rodriguez in the eighth on his 110th and final pitch, and that's when the trouble started. Well, actually, when Maddon called again for reliever Lance Cormier, who gave up a hard single to Hideki Matsui.

Next the defense faltered, new first baseman Chris Richard throwing away what should have been a run-scoring double-play ball, giving the Yankees the run and two on. "The tipping point," Maddon said.

After Brian Shouse struck out Robinson Cano, the Yankees sent up Posada to hit and Maddon summoned Balfour - against whom Posada was 3-for-3 - looking for a strikeout or a pop-up. Instead, he got another home run, not unlike the three-run shot he gave up to Placido Polanco in Detroit on Aug.30.

"I don't feel like there's anything physically wrong. I feel fine, same velocity, I'm just not locating my pitches and I'm getting hurt," said Balfour, who has a 4.90 ERA and allowed 89 baserunners in 602/3 innings. "I definitely haven't got the job done. So not good."

There was some historical significance - albeit a bit overhyped in that New York kind of way - as Jeter got the three hits he needed to tie Gehrig atop the Yankees' all-time list with 2,721. (If you were wondering, Carl Crawford is the Rays leader with 1,274.)

Jeter reached on a bunt single in his first at-bat and a ground-rule double on a fly to center that went over the head of a hobbling B.J. Upton. Then one shy of Gehrig, with the crowd cheering and flashes exploding in the seventh, Jeter singled sharply past first.

The scoreboard flashed CONGRATULATIONS DEREK! 2721, the fans chanted his name and Jeter waved his batting helmet.

In the process, Niemann - who like the other rookies had to wear dresses for the ill-timed annual hazing - became a footnote to history.

"I thought I'd come right at him with my best stuff, and if he did it, he did it," Niemann said. "He did. It's what he's been doing his whole career. ... At least he had to bunt to get one of them, so that makes you feel a little bit better."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

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Yankees' hit leaders

Derek Jeter's single in the seventh inning tied him atop the Yankees'all-time hits list. The leaders:

Player...................Hits

Lou Gehrig..........2,721

Derek Jeter..........2,721

Babe Ruth...........2,518

Mickey Mantle.....2,415

Bernie Williams....2,336

Joe DiMaggio......2,214

Don Mattingly.....2,153

Yogi Berra...........2,148

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