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Mediocre Yankees spinning their wheels

ARLINGTON, Texas -- It is the hallmark of a mediocre team: One step forward, one step back. Two steps forward, three steps back. Four steps forward ... well, you get the idea.

The New York Yankees lost to the Texas Rangers 4-2 on Monday night, which is not a catastrophe in itself. They were facing Yu Darvish, one of the best pitchers in the game, and aside from Brett Gardner, who seems to own Yu -- Gardner hit two more home runs off him to give him four HRs in 11 career at-bats against him -- the Yankees, as usual, had a terrible time coming up with timely hits. And once David Phelps unraveled to allow four runs after he had already gotten two outs in the fifth inning, their fate was virtually sealed.

But where it does become a problem is when you look at the big picture. The Yankees were just coming off an excellent 10-game homestand, in which they went 7-3. It was marred only by the fact that they lost the final two games to the Toronto Blue Jays, with whom they are engaged in a dogfight for an AL wild-card spot.

Now, they are beginning a six-game road trip against two last-place teams -- OK, so one of them is the Boston Red Sox -- and they start out by blowing a game they might easily have won. Worse than that, they once again have followed a four-game winning streak, a stretch that looked like it might be a turning point to their puzzling season, with a three-game losing streak.

And even though they are just as likely to win the next two games here, and probably two of three in Boston, it is the repeat of a most disturbing pattern. Since June 1, when they were 29-25, here is the way things have gone: Lose four in a row, win two. Lose two in a row, win four. Lose two, win four. Lose four more. Win a couple, lose five.

So here we are, nearly two months later, with just about two months to go, and the Yankees are 54-51, or 25-26 since that June 1 milestone.

And unless that pattern is broken, that is the kind of season this is going to wind up being. A shade better than mediocre, and nowhere near good enough to make the playoffs, or more importantly, to justify last winter's expenditure on players or the exorbitant prices demanded of their fans.

Yes, the Yankees have had more than their share of injuries. In a way, it is remarkable that any team that could lose four of its five starting pitchers to injury wouldn't have fallen hard into the cellar.

But the truth is, the pitching hasn't really been the problem. Phelps, Chase Whitley, Shane Greene, Brandon McCarthy and, most recently, Chris Capuano have stepped in and pitched competently, if not brilliantly, in emergency duty. Even including his disastrous fifth inning, Phelps pitched well enough on Monday night to give most teams at least a chance to win.

But the Yankees are losing for one simple reason: They don't hit enough.

Gardner's two home runs were the sum total of their scoring, but not their offense against the formidable Darvish. In fact, the first four hitters in their batting order -- Gardner, Derek Jeter, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran -- went 7-for-14 against Darvish with two home runs, a double, a walk and a stolen base.

And still, the only two runs they could manage came from Gardner's 11th and 12th home runs of the season. The fact that Gardner is tied, with Beltran, for second place on the team in HRs tells you a lot about this offense.

But not everything.

The rest of the story was told in at-bats like McCann's in the seventh, when with runners on second and third, two out and the Yankees trailing by two, he swung over a 2-2 cutter, Darvish's final pitch of the night, to end the inning. And like the final at-bat of the eighth, when Yankees manager Joe Girardi, in what I thought a questionable move, decided to pinch hit for future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki with rookie Zelous Wheeler. It was a knee-jerk, lefty-right move that ignored the likelihood that Ichiro would at least give a professional at-bat against lefty Neal Cotts. The inexperienced Wheeler popped up a 2-2 fastball, stranding runners at first and second.

There was also the fourth inning, when the Yankees had runners on first and second with one out, only to see Brian Roberts strike out and Ichiro ground out to snuff out that rally.

The end result was a frustrating one for all the Yankees, but none more than Derek Jeter, who with his three hits, one of them a double that skipped into the right-center-field seats, passed Carl Yastrzemski for seventh on the all-time major league hits list.

"It's quite an accomplishment," Jeter said. "But it's tough to enjoy when you lose the game."

Indeed. It's also tough to get truly excited by a winning streak when this season it is almost always followed by an equivalent losing streak. There never seems to be any sustainable momentum with this team, and consequently, never a genuine reason to believe that they will at some point finally be able to turn this season around.

"You've just got to turn it around," Girardi said. "We know that we're capable of doing it. We've done it at times. We had a pretty good homestand. We didn't start this road trip off the way we want, but you can change the feeling tomorrow."

The Yankees have changed the feeling many times already this season. Problem is, whenever they start to get you feeling good about them, they change it back to where you feel bad about them again.

That is the essence of mediocrity. So far, this is a team that is neither very good nor very bad, and never one or the other for long enough to truly be either.

Blame mom and dad: Gardner was predictably modest about his success against Darvish -- he added a single in the seventh to his two home runs and is now 5-for-12 (.417) with four home runs lifetime against him -- but Darvish had the quote of the night when he said through an interpreter, "I just blame the parents of Brett Gardner. I just blame them for creating a great hitter."

Tex makes a cameo: After having missed seven games with a lat strain, Mark Teixeira made an appearance, hitting for Roberts in the eighth and, batting right-handed, singling to left off Neal Cotts. "It was very reassuring," Teixeira said. "I wasn't expecting anything negative, but at the same time you want to go out there and get it done."

Teixeira said he "absolutely" would be in the lineup for Tuesday's Game 2.