ST. PETERSBURG -- It was the type of loss that's usually the toughest to take. The Yankees fell to the Rays, 3-2, on Tuesday night, in a game they led but let slip away because of two key defensive miscues.
But they got a big consolation: Bartolo Colon was good again.
After posting an 11.37 ERA in his last two starts, Colon looked a lot more like the pitcher who shined for most of the first half while giving up one run through his first six innings.
Sure, he wound up with a no-decision after blunders by Curtis Granderson and Boone Logan allowed his two inherited runners to score in the seventh. And, yeah, the Yankees wound up snapping their three-game winning streak with a defeat that could've easily been avoided -- in the process missing a chance to gain ground on the Red Sox, who lost to the Orioles.
But 12 days before the non-waiver Trade Deadline, and on a night when fallback rotation option Ivan Nova left his Triple-A start early with a right ankle injury, Colon provided the type of bounce-back start the Yankees were looking for.
"That's what we wanted to see," manager Joe Girardi said. "That's the good thing about it. We didn't score a lot of runs tonight, but he threw the ball really well."
Colon's nine strikeouts and 105 pitches through 6 1/3 innings were his highest totals since the 2007 season. He retired 14 of 17 batters leading into the seventh inning but gave up a couple of one-out singles before being taken out in favor of Logan with a 2-1 Yankees lead.
Then everything fell apart.
Granderson lost a fly ball to load the bases, Logan mishandled a comebacker off the bat of Elliot Johnson that allowed the Rays to tie it and Johnny Damon gave Tampa Bay the lead on a sacrifice fly to shallow center field -- one Granderson made a sliding catch on but threw wide of home.
Granderson simply couldn't pick up the ball amid the white roof at The Trop.
"I'm not sure if it was the roof or the catwalk, but it blended in real well," Granderson said. "It always is a little bit of an issue to pick it up and stay with it."
Then there was the chopper by Johnson, a one-hopper right at Logan that could've easily resulted in a home-to-first double play but wound up bouncing off his glove.
"I was so geared up to get him out and I was more focused on making my pitch, and when he hit it, it kind of caught me off guard," Logan explained.
"We kind of gave them a game," said Girardi, whose club remained 1 1/2 games back of Boston in the American League East. "You're going to have physical errors, and you're going to lose balls in the lights. I mean, it's going to happen sometimes in a dome. But that doesn't mean that I'm happy about it."
The Yankees can at least be happy about Colon.
After giving up five runs on a season-high 10 hits to these same Rays on July 7, then not even making it out of the first inning against the Blue Jays on Thursday, the veteran right-hander said he felt fine but was mentally worried about re-injuring his left hamstring, which hindered his effectiveness on the mound.
But heading into what seemed like a do-or-die start, Colon got over that fear quickly.
"I knew that if I kept thinking about it, I wouldn't pitch well," Colon said in Spanish after being charged with three runs (two earned) on five hits and two walks. "I was scared. But it went away, thankfully."
The popular notion after Colon's last outing was that the best was already behind him and the Yankees needed another option in the back end of their bullpen.
Colon feels the language barrier helped him not read into that.
"Since my English isn't very good, I can't pay much attention to it anyway," Colon said with a laugh. "All I have to do is fight so I can keep doing my job, and that's what I'm doing right now."
Colon said he benefited from throwing more four-seamers, a pitch that was consistently between 91 and 93 mph. But what made the 38-year-old so successful earlier in the year was a cutter that moved well.
Catcher Russell Martin saw more life in Colon's pitches.
"His fastball had good movement on it, and he was looking like the Bartolo from earlier in the year," said Martin, who made the final out with a fly ball to the left-field warning track. "He mixed in his pitches a bit more today, and I think he had just a better feel for the changeup and the slider as well."
The Yanks were led offensively once again by the hot-hitting Brett Gardner, who finished 2-for-3, stole two bases -- his 14th and 15th in a row -- and now has a .640 on-base percentage in six second-half games.
New York took a 2-0 lead in the third against Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson on a two-run homer by Robinson Cano, one that gave him 16 on the year and snapped the Yankees' four-game homerless drought.
But Hellickson, a strong candidate for the AL Rookie of the Year Award, didn't give up anything else while striking out seven and walking one in seven innings.
As usual, the 24-year-old's changeup was especially good.
"He got us to chase it a lot," Girardi said, "and he was real effective with it."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.