When you rank 12th in the American League in runs scored, you can’t afford to shrug off close losses. When you play in a division where all five teams own a winning record, a moral victory holds no value.

If you’re the Yankees, you have to look at yesterday’s 3-1 defeat to the Rays at Yankee Stadium and try to create wins from the loss.

And it’s pretty clear what that means here: Phil Hughes is on the clock.

“As I’ve talked about, every time you go out there, it’s an opportunity to show what you can do,” Joe Girardi said after the day’s results put the Yankees (41-34) 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Red Sox (45-33) and 2 1/2 games ahead of the last-place Rays (39-37). “This is a game that you have to prove yourself over and over.”

Ivan Nova took the loss here on Old-Timers’ Day, but he pitched well enough to merit another look. Called up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre because the Yankees needed a sixth starter, he put together by far his best major-league performance of the season, displaying an improved curveball to strike out seven (six on the curveball) in 6 2/3 innings and allowing seven hits while walking three and hitting two batters.

“You see the way he pitched today, he made it real hard,” Girardi said.

Asked whether he thought he earned another chance, Nova replied: “I’ve got to say yes. It’s here where you want to be. I’m trying to do my best. Trying to stay here.”

Had either Shawn Kelley or Boone Logan done his job in relief of Nova, the right-hander’s final line would have looked even better. After Nova hit Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist back-to-back with two outs in the seventh, however, Kelley walked Evan Longoria to load the bases and Logan gave up a two-run single to James Loney to break the 1-1 tie.

And the Yankees’ offense didn’t stir. With 293 runs for the season, they slipped behind the Astros (296) to fall from 11th to 12th in the AL. They also dropped again to a negative run differential, 293-294.