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For Yankees and Jeter, reality is setting in

8/31/2014

TORONTO -- When Derek Jeter looked at the New York Yankees lineup card on the wall of the visitor's clubhouse Sunday morning, his eyes went not to his spot in the batting order, the customary second, or his position, which on this date was the occasional DH.

It went right to the date. "Tomorrow's September already?" he said incredulously. "It's flying by."

Whether he meant this season, the remainder of his career or the Yankees' playoff chances, only he knows.

But by the end of the day, which ended with yet another crushing defeat to a team with almost nothing to play for, the answer was clear: All of the above.

In a way, it was fitting the game ended with the tying run at third base and Jeter at the plate, taking his final at-bat at the Rogers Centre, the site of one of the worst moments of his career, facing Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen, one of the pitchers he has had the least success against.

"Those are the fun situations in this game," Jeter said afterward. "You want to be in those situations. I don’t think I’ve had much success off Janssen, but I'm up there trying to get a hit like always. You always like those situations. He was better than me this time, but we had an opportunity right up until the end."

Right up until Jeter reached across the plate at a low 0-1 curveball and poked it harmlessly toward second base, where Munenori Kawasaki plucked the soft line drive out of the air to finish off a 4-3, come-from-behind Blue Jays win.

"It’s a tough loss for us," Jeter said. "We only have so many series left. We only have so many games left. We need to win every day that we go out there. That’s the approach that we need to have."

It is the approach the Yankees have needed for quite some time now, but this might have been the first time so many of them finally acknowledged it. There is now virtually no margin for error, and "winning series," the pet phrase manager Joe Girardi uses to excuse individual defeats, is no longer good enough.

Now they need to win games -- and a lot of them -- if they are going keep their flicker of a playoff dream alive.

"I don't think it's a hard thing to figure out," starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy said. "Forget about series. We just need to win games. The more wins, the better."

Jeter's final at-bat against Janssen, a pitcher he has just one of his 3,444 career hits against in 18 career at-bats (.055) is not the reason the Yankees lost this game, nor was the seventh-inning 2-2 pitch to Edwin Encarnacion that home plate umpire Chad Fairchild called ball three, as Girardi tried to contend afterward. Nor was it even McCarthy allowing three solo home runs -- to Encarnacion on the next pitch and to Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista back-to-back an inning earlier.

The reason the Yankees lost Sunday is the same reason as for most of their 65 losses this season: This year, despite an infusion of cash and fresh faces on offense, the Bronx Bombers have been a dud at the plate.

Once again, the Yankees were helpless with runners on second or third, a situation in which they found themselves in the second, fourth, sixth, seventh, eighth and of course, the ninth inning, after Jacoby Ellsbury's pinch-hit bloop double put the tying run in scoring position with Brett Gardner and then Jeter coming to the plate.

Gardner, who had homered to start the game, and circled the bases again in the fifth by tripling into the gap and then scoring when Jose Reyes threw the ball into his own dugout while trying to nail Gardner at third, hit the ball hard but right at Encarnacion at first base for the second out. Jeter did not hit the ball hard, and the game ended. And in the end, the Yankees were 1-for-8 in situations that could have tied the game.

"It makes it much harder if you don't hit the ball out of the ballpark," Girardi said. "Obviously, it makes it a lot harder to score runs if you don’t hit with runners in scoring position."

To his credit, Francisco Cervelli, who had a triple and an RBI single, refused to use the strike that wasn't called -- a non-call that got bench coach Tony Pena ejected and McCarthy called "a game-changer" -- as a reason for this defeat.

"I thought it was a strike, but you got to keep playing baseball, you know?" he said. "He hit a home run after that. It was a little disappointing for the call, but we are humans. That’s going to happen during the games. But we got to keep playing baseball. We got to keep scoring runs. I don’t think that is an excuse."

In fact, the time for making excuses is over. The time for hiding behind euphemisms such as "plenty of baseball yet to play" and "we've just got to win series" has long passed. There is only one thing left for the Yankees to do, and that is win, every day if possible, until there are no more games left to play.

And if it means truly salvaging something from this puzzling, disappointing and rapidly vanishing season -- because what's the point of making the playoffs if it's only going to be a one-game appearance? -- then it means looking reality in the face and changing some of the attitudes that got the Yankees into this position in the first place.

"I try not to think about any 'lasts' when I come to cities for the last time," Jeter said in response to a question about never playing another game in Toronto. "We’re trying to win games, and that’s what I try to keep my focus on this entire year. It could be difficult at times, but our focus has got to be to try to win games. If we win every one of our games, we'll be fine."

Jeter might not have noticed it before Sunday morning, but he knows it now. It is all flying by. This season, the remainder of his career and yes, the chance to play in one more October.