BALTIMORE -- Tonight's game marked the beginning of the season's most crucial stretch for the Yankees, and it started off badly with a 4-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles that dropped them to three games behind the idle Tampa Bay Rays for the second wild-card spot.
They got decent starting pitching, but aside from Alex Rodriguez and Lyle Overbay, didn't hit worth a damn and struck out a total of 12 times. The offense's best moment came at the end of the game, when Curtis Granderson missed a game-tying, two-run homer by a foot or so, driving Adam Jones to the center-field fence to flag down the final out.
Can't Compete: CC Sabathia pitched an OK game -- 7 1/3 innings, seven hits, four runs (three earned) and six strikeouts -- but he ran a distant second to Orioles starter Chris Tillman, and worse, once again gave up an early lead. On the positive side, Sabathia kept the Yankees' bullpen out of the game until Joe Girardi sent in Adam Warren with one out in the eighth. The loss was Sabathia's 12th of the season, a career high; he had lost 11 twice previously, most recently in 2006 with the Cleveland Indians.
Big turnaround: Orioles starter Chris Tillman plowed over the Yankees for seven innings, holding them to four hits -- one of them a first-inning home run by Alex Rodriguez -- and striking out nine before Lyle Overbay chased him with a solo home run leading off the eighth. Tillman came in 15-5 with a 3.71 ERA this season, but had a 3-4 lifetime record and 7.43 ERA versus the Yankees in nine career starts. Looked like a different pitcher tonight. Or, the Yankees' lineup made him look that way.
Mixed doubles: Sabathia allowed leadoff doubles in three of the first six innings, and two of them would end up scoring. With the game tied at one, CC surrendered a leadoff double in the sixth to J.J. Hardy, who came around to score on a sacrifice fly by Matt Wieters. Then, with two outs, he gave up a single to Alex Casilla, who then stole second and scored on Nick Markakis' single to give Baltimore a 3-1 lead. And in the seventh, the Orioles got their fourth double of the night, albeit the RBI kind, not the leadoff kind, when Manny Machado lined one about five feet below the top of the high right-field fence to drive in Wieters to make it 4-1. For Machado, it was his MLB-leading 49th double of the season.
Second best: Joe Girardi stuck Alex Rodriguez in the two-hole in his lineup -- the first time in more than seven years that A-Rod has batted second -- and Alex wasted no time expressing his appreciation, belting a 3-2 pitch from Tillman over the right-field fence to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead. It was A-Rod's fifth homer of the season and No. 652 for his career, leaving him eight short of Willie Mays -- and the $6 million bonus that goes with it. It was also his 119th career homer as a No. 2 hitter.
Generous CC: One of the hallmarks of Sabathia's disappointing 2013 is his penchant for giving back leads, and he did it again tonight. Just moments after A-Rod had given the Yankees a 1-0 first-inning lead, Sabathia gave it back, allowing a leadoff double to Nick Markakis, who went to third on a sacrifice bunt and scored on a sac fly.
Overwall: Overbay hit his first home run in 30 days, a solo shot off Tillman leading off the eighth, that cut the Orioles' lead to 4-2. Tillman had retired the previous 14 Yankees he faced, six of them on strikeouts.
War of words: In a bizarre between-innings scene, both benches emptied and both managers had to be held back by umpires over an unknown dispute. YES Network announcers speculated Girardi suspected O's 3B coach Bobby Dickerson of stealing signs and shouted at him from the dugout, prompting Orioles manager Buck Showalter to go scorched-earth. We'll ask after the game, but you can bet both managers will develop severe cases of amnesia regarding the incident.