ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It's a relatively short drive from the Tampa offices of the New York Yankees, where Hal Steinbrenner goes to work each day, to Tropicana Field, where the Yankees got roughed up Friday night by the last-place Tampa Bay Rays, a team that could be well on its way to 100 losses this season.
Steinbrenner chose to make that drive Friday night, and if he had any doubt about the condition of and prospects for his team this season, or simply wanted to see it for himself, the Yankees' managing general partner (i.e., boss) certainly got himself an eyeful.
The team that had won eight of its previous 11, all against winning teams, looked feeble at bat and ineffective on the mound against a team that started the night with a 39-61 record and 18½ games out of first place. Ivan Nova, who was at the very least pitching to keep himself in the Yankees' rotation and possibly even to keep himself on the team, gave up a home run to the first batter he faced and could not get out of the fifth inning. The Yankees managed to scrape together 10 hits but no runs until the eighth inning, by which point they already trailed 5-0. And that one run, driven in by a Mark Teixeira single, was all they could eke out on a night in which they left 10 on base and went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position in a 5-1 loss.
On the bright side, the owner did get to see Alex Rodriguez, the highest-paid benchwarmer on his roster, make a rare pinch-hitting appearance -- against a right-handed reliever, no less! -- and bounce a single into left field in the ninth inning.
Whether what Steinbrenner saw was worse than he imagined it could be or simply pretty much what he had expected is known only to him; he watched the game from a luxury suite one deck above the press box and was not available to the media afterward.
And it is unlikely he had spoken to Joe Girardi by the time the media invaded the manager's office on its nightly quest for answers only the owner can accurately provide.
No one knows for sure what approach the Yankees will take to Monday's non-waiver trade deadline. A month ago, they looked like sure sellers, although general manager Brian Cashman still needed to do a selling job on his boss, who was holding out hope for a resurgence, of both the team and its ticket sales.
Then, out of nowhere, the wins started coming: Three of four against the first-place Indians in Cleveland. Three of four against the first-place Baltimore Orioles. Two of three from the first-place San Francisco Giants. Two of three from the surging Houston Astros.
Suddenly, the first three months of the season seemed like a distant and easily forgotten nightmare, and selling didn't seem to be the way to go at all.
But now, here are the Yankees, in Hal Steinbrenner's hometown, playing one of the worst teams in baseball and needing at the very least to win the series to cement their newly won stature as a contending team. Even if it was only for the wild card, and the second wild card at that, it was a lot better than where they seemed to be headed in May, when they were eight games below .500 and firmly in the American League East cellar.
This one, for some reason, seemed to let the air out of several Yankees balloons all at once, because of the quality of opposition (or lack thereof), the absence once again of the offense, and the utter failure of Nova at the tail end of a month in which three of his four other starts had been quite good.
On this night, Nova was horrendous, allowing that leadoff homer to Logan Forsythe and another, two batters later, to Corey Dickerson; walking three batters; hitting another; falling behind constantly and leaving with one out in the fifth inning after some parting words with plate umpire Laz Diaz, who Nova felt was squeezing him. Nova wound up giving up six hits and five earned runs, his ERA spiking from 4.65 to 4.90. If the Yankees hoped to move him at the deadline, this performance gave them no help -- there were plenty of scouts in the crowd -- nor did it do much to inspire their confidence to keep him in their starting rotation.
"It was bad," Nova said, barely audibly, in the postgame clubhouse. "I got hit in the middle of the plate and fell behind almost every hitter. It was not good."
As for the offense, it started off promisingly enough, with first-inning singles from Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran off starter Jake Odorizzi, but Brian McCann (strikeout) and Teixeira (fly out) couldn't get the run home, and the Yankees did not mount another threat until the seventh inning. Which also went nowhere.
The A-Rod single, which followed a one-out single by Chase Headley, gave the Yankees a breath of life that was quickly snuffed out when Brett Gardner grounded into a force and Ellsbury flied out deep to center. The loss left the Yankees two games over .500 and with a run differential of minus-28, perhaps a far more accurate yardstick than any other of the kind of team they truly are.
"Usually, to be a winning team, you have to be pretty close to being on the positive side of that," Girardi said. "To be really over .500, you have to be substantially there.”
It was as close as this team-loyal and media-reticent manager has ever come to calling a spade a spade and admitting what nearly everyone else seems to know about his outfit.
Everyone but the man up in the luxury box, who might have finally gotten an up-close-and-personal look at the reality of the 2015 New York Yankees.