- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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TAMPA, Fla. -- The New York Yankees had made it through 38⅔ days of spring training and somehow, all of their biggest injury risks -- Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Mark Teixeira and, of course, Alex Rodriguez -- had made it through unscathed, and Brian Cashman's preseason proclamation that unless someone got hurt, every one of his roster spots had been pre-filled seemed about to come true.
Then, in the sixth inning of the Yankees 30th preseason game, a bouncer came up the middle that Brendan Ryan, the backup shortstop, moved to his left to handle. But before he got to the ball, he let out a stream of what Stephen Drew, his neighbor at second base, called "vulgar words," stopped short, and tried unsuccessfully to barehand the ball. It bounced off his hand, allowing the final two runs to score in the Tampa Bay Rays' 3-0 victory over the Yankees at Steinbrenner Field.
But the Yankees lost more than a ballgame on this day; they lost the carefully-cultivated but quite artificial sense of security they had developed over nearly six weeks of virtually injury-free baseball.
Ryan is certainly not the key to the Yankees success this season. But if he is out for any length of time -- and he needed to be carried off the field by Joe Girardi and trainer Stevie Donohue, unable to put any weight on a calf strain, the severity of which was to be determined in an MRI tube Wednesday afternoon -- then the best-laid plans of Girardi and GM Brian Cashman are already beginning to go awry.
As Girardi said after the game, "Now, because of everything that happened today, everything is all over the place."
Meaning the Yankees infield, which seemed as impossible to break into as Fort Knox, is in disarray. Didi Gregorius, signed to play shortstop in the first season of the post-Derek Jeter era, rolled his wrist on Saturday. Gregorius says he is OK, but he was scheduled to play Wednesday until some unexpected swelling forced Girardi to push him back a day. Now, it is said he will play Thursday.
Stephen Drew, a shortstop by trade who was signed to play second base, now has to be given a refresher course in his old position in the event Gregorius can't play.
And in the trickle-down effect, the Yankees have to take another look at one of the kids they deemed not ready for prime time, namely Nick Noonan, Cole Figueroa or fan-favorite Rob Refsnyder -- as a possible option at second base in the event Drew has to move back to shortstop. Jose Pirela, who certainly would have gotten a call-up had he not run into a fence post and suffered a concussion on March 22 in Port St. Lucie, is not ready to play yet. And no, no one has suggested either sticking A-Rod back out there or trying to talk Jeter out of retirement.
With three days left on the calendar, the Yankees might have considered themselves just about home free. But not Girardi.
"I never feel that way," Girardi said. "I remember the one day, I think it was the last day of spring training, that a pitcher got hit in the back and went on the DL. When you’re out there, anything can happen.”
And with the age on this roster, it probably will.
The Ryan injury reminds you that the Yankees are probably lucky to have come this far in training camp without a serious injury to one of their truly important players. They had a couple of scares -- Jacoby Ellsbury's oblique strain kept him out of action for 17 days; Teixeira was hit in the knee by a pitch over the weekend and it could have been a lot worse; and until Gregorius is back on the field, the jury is still out on his sprained left wrist.
And if a relatively young and healthy player such as Ryan, who did miss some time earlier this spring with a back strain, can get hurt on what looked like a routine play in a relatively low-intensity game near the end of camp, how much confidence can anyone have that Tanaka, Sabathia, Pineda, Teixeira or A-Rod will not collapse under the strain of the regular season?
The loss of any one of them could be fatal to this team's chances of getting to the playoffs after consecutive seasons without October baseball. Certainly losing Tanaka would doom this club, and so would losing Pineda. They might survive the loss of Sabathia or A-Rod or even Teixeira, but they would need to find suitable replacements in a hurry.
That is why it is foolish to predict how many games a baseball team will win, or where it will finish, or who will win the World Series. There's just too many games to be played, too much randomness to the game, too many things that can go wrong. Too many key players can get hurt.
An injury to a player like Ryan might not seem like serious a blow to a ballclub, but it is the damage that injury does to a roster more than an individual that makes all the difference. Do the Yankees really want to start the big-league clock on a kid like Refsnyder, who has all the potential in the world but is nowhere near a finished product, and use up one of his options for what might be just a brief stay in the big leagues? Do they dare trade away a prospect for a journeyman infielder who might play only a handful of games if Gregorius turns out to be healthy? Do they rush Pirela back before he is ready, or promote one of the other kids and risk blowing a game that could come back to haunt them at the end of the season?
Those are the kind of decisions Girardi was hoping to avoid in the final days of a training camp that to this point was so smooth, it almost made you forget how vulnerable these Yankees really are.
Ryan's injury ended the good fortune the Yankees have had on the injury front in spring training.