BOSTON -- The Yankees checked in for their first visit of the season to Fenway Park on Friday, refreshed from the All-Star break and ready to attack a pivotal part of their schedule that may define how realistically they view their playoff chances by the end of the month.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, the brief respite did not cure many of the problems that ailed their first half. Andy Pettitte got off to a rough start before settling in, their offense sputtered and they absorbed yet another injury as the Red Sox posted a 4-2 victory.
"This ain't easy," said Pettitte, who served up early homers to Jacoby Ellsbury and Jonny Gomes in a losing effort. "It's a tough lineup. Those guys are good over there. They can hit the ball. You're trying to battle as best you can."
The defeat dropped the Yankees a season-low seven games behind the division-leading Red Sox, who improved their American League-leading record to 59-39. Boston has won five of seven meetings with New York this season.
It was not the start that Yankees manager Joe Girardi was looking for, particularly as New York heads into a 10-game sprint that pits them against the Red Sox, Rangers and Rays, clubs with better records than the Bronx Bombers.
"It's one night. You can't make too much of it, but obviously this is an important stretch for us that we're in, and we understand that," Girardi said. "The next three teams we play are all in front of us, and that's really important, so we need to play well."
Red Sox left-hander Felix Doubront limited the Yankees to three hits over 6 1/3 innings, permitting two runs (one earned), and three Boston relievers held New York to a pair of hits in the late innings as Koji Uehara earned his ninth save.
Brett Gardner said that returning from the All-Star break made it feel like something of a new season, but there was clearly some carryover from the year's opening act.
That frustration was evidenced by Gardner's two-handed spike of his batting helmet following a called third strike in the fifth inning, earning a quick ejection from home-plate umpire Mike Everitt.
"This is a big game, it's the middle of the game, it's a one-run game, and I've got do a better job of keeping my emotions in check," Gardner said. "But today I didn't. I wish I had done things differently and stayed in the ballgame."
Girardi said that he did not agree with the ejection, believing Gardner should have been written up for an equipment violation and fined instead of being tossed from the game.
"Come on. We're not playing here for giggles," Girardi said. "We're playing to win a division and players are going to get frustrated."
Gardner noted that "we've seen other guys do the same thing and not get thrown out," perhaps a reference to the similar display from the Twins' Justin Morneau on a check-swing last weekend at Yankee Stadium.
Losing Gardner stung even more as the Yankees were forced to pull outfielder Zoilo Almonte from the game with a sprained left ankle. Almonte hurt the ankle running to first base in the second inning and is heading for the disabled list, according to general manager Brian Cashman.
"It started hurting right away after the play, but I did try to run on it to see if it would get better," Almonte said through an interpreter.
That was icing on a night when Pettitte struggled with the long ball, seeing his second pitch of the game slugged over the right-field wall by Ellsbury on a get-me-over fastball, then serving up a two-run blast to Gomes in the second inning that cleared the Green Monster in left.
Pettitte settled in after Gomes' shot, retiring 14 of the next 17 hitters, but he would still leave on the short end as Doubront kept the Yankees in check. Pettitte has allowed four runs or more in seven straight starts, tied for the longest such streak of his career.
"It's got to change," Pettitte said. "I can't keep going out there and giving up two, three, four runs in the first inning and second inning. I feel too good."
Gardner manufactured the Yanks' first run in the fourth inning, stealing second base despite being picked off, then swiping third before scoring as Jarrod Saltalamacchia awkwardly threw the ball down the left-field line.
Lyle Overbay and Chris Stewart smacked fifth-inning doubles to produce a more conventional second run for the Yankees, but the Red Sox added an insurance run in the seventh, with the rally starting when Gomes skied a ground-rule double to right.
After an out, Pettitte was done after 95 pitches, handing the ball to Shawn Kelley. The right-hander uncorked a wild pitch that sent Gomes to third, and Jose Iglesias cashed in the run with a single to right field, creating a two-run lead that felt much healthier given the Yanks' struggles.
"We're battling right now, man," Pettitte said. "The guys are grinding and this isn't easy. Hopefully we score some runs and we win the next two games to win the series, and [get] everybody feeling real good about what we're doing."