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Thursday, September 23, 2010
Updated: September 24, 3:44 PM ET
Welcome to Girardi's worst nightmare

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- This is what it looked like in the New York Yankees' clubhouse on Thursday night: The ace of the pitching staff, the 20-game winner the team has relied on every five days to stabilize the rotation, to stop the losing streaks and to extend the winning streaks, was hanging his head and apologizing for choosing the occasion of the most important game of the regular season to have his worst outing of the year.

"I'm definitely disappointed,'' said CC Sabathia. "This was a big game. Not being able to come through tonight, I definitely feel bad. I feel like I let these guys down. I feel like I kinda deflated the team.''

Meanwhile, the mutt of the pitching staff, the guy who has been shuttled back and forth between the starting rotation and the bullpen, all the while collecting his $11.5 million paycheck while counting the days until he can switch uniforms for the sixth time in his 13-year career, is chuckling at the thought of having hit three batters in succession, one of which forced in a run.

"You know what? Sincerely, I don't think it's that big of a deal,'' said a ruefully smiling Javier Vazquez. "I think I may have hit two guys in an inning before. Not three.''

And in the interview room, the manager was seething between his braces and asking a reporter, mockingly, if he had any better ideas of who to bring in to replace Vazquez in that seventh inning, when all semblance of command and professionalism seemed to have deserted the pitcher.

"Well, who would you want me to bring in?'' Joe Girardi asked, his question dripping with sarcasm.

Of course, tacked to the clubhouse door, Girardi has a list of the names of 17 pitchers on his roster, the room so packed with September call-ups that before the game, no less than four of them were crammed into a single locker stall.

Who, indeed?

This is how quickly things can go bad for a baseball season and a baseball team. A divisional race that looked as though it were over on Tuesday night is very much back on again Friday morning. (Now which idiot would have been dumb enough to write that? Oh, yeah ...)

And what appeared to be a pretty clear path back to the American League Championship series, if not the World Series and even a second straight sashay down the so-called Canyon of Heroes now looks just as likely to come to a screeching halt before Columbus Day.

That is how quickly things can go bad around here, as quickly as Sabathia lost Kelly Shoppach, a .190 hitter, from a 1-2 count to a sixth-inning walk that loaded the bases and led to a seven-run Tampa Bay inning, that led to a crushing 10-3 defeat.

"Crushing is your word,'' said Jorge Posada. "We just gotta come out and play another ballgame tomorrow.''

But there are fewer and fewer of them left, nine for the Yankees, all against formidable opposition -- six against the Boston Red Sox, beginning Friday night at Yankee Stadium, and three against the Toronto Blue Jays -- and 10 for the Rays against the Seattle Mariners, the Kansas City Royals and the Baltimore Orioles. Doormats, all.

That is how quickly things can go bad for a ballclub, about as quickly as they went bad between Girardi and Vazquez, members of a mutual dis-admiration society who, if you didn't know better, you might have suspected of playing out their own personal little feud on the field in full view of whatever remained of a crowd that at some point had swelled to 47,646.

There was Vazquez, in his final days of an unhappy second tenure as a Yankee and with rapidly dwindling hope of gaining a spot on the playoff roster, on the mound throwing the baseball with no idea of where it was going. Or maybe with a very good idea of where it was going and not really caring.

And there was Girardi, the trigger-happy micromanager, sitting as if someone had glued his pants to the dugout bench as his pitcher publicly unraveled and snuffed out whatever faint hopes the Yankees may have had of overcoming what had been a five-run deficit.

"In all my years, I've never seen Javy like that,'' Girardi said. "I'm not exactly sure what was going on. Just strange. Very uncharacteristic of Javy to have control problems like that. I'll talk to him tomorrow about it.''

Thursday night, however, the manager thought it best to let Javy work out his problems without his interference. Well, who would you want him to bring in?

Not Joba Chamberlain, of course, since he had already done his damage, coming on in relief of Sabathia -- who not only walked the bases full but walked in the go-ahead run -- to promptly allow a rocket of a two-run double to B.J. Upton and a two-run single to Carl Crawford.

But there was Kerry Wood, the designated Eighth-Inning Guy, and Sergio Mitre and Boone Logan and all those call-ups, Jonathan Albaladejo and Romulo Sanchez and Andrew Brackman, as well as Royce Ring, who pitched well Wednesday night. There were also a couple of guys in the press box who never hit three guys even in a media game.

Instead, Girardi left Vazquez out there, didn't even get anyone up in the bullpen, and miraculously, Vazquez bounced back to pitch two clean innings, making his dirty seventh that much more shocking. So much for the myth that the Yankees are a tight-knit Band of Brothers committed to the principles of all for one and one for all.

Girardi and Vazquez certainly were at cross purposes last night, unless of course the manager's purpose was to have the pitcher to pitch his way off the postseason roster and the pitcher's was to pitch Girardi right out of the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Yankees had platinum opportunities to chase David Price in both the fifth and the sixth, loading the bases in both innings but coming away with a total of one run.

"Those were our chances to break the game open,'' Girardi said. "Now we're basically back to where we started on April 1, only with a lot less games to play.''

It was a heck of a night for the Yankees' bats -- which had awakened to score 16 runs off Tampa Bay pitching in the first two games of this series -- to go back to sleep, and a heck of a night for Sabathia, the one pitcher in the Yankees' rotation who absolutely cannot have a bad day, to have perhaps his worst of the season.

"We still have a chance to finish it off and reach our goal,'' Mark Teixeira said. "We just have to work a little bit harder now.''

But that's what happens when things go this bad this quickly for a baseball team, and that's how bad things are for the Yankees right now.

GAME NOTES: Marcus Thames hit his 12th home run of the season, a screaming liner into the lower left-field seats, in the second inning to give the Yankees an early 2-0 lead. It was Thames' fifth homer in 116 at-bats versus left-handed pitching this season. ... Derek Jeter's fifth-inning single extended his hitting streak to 12 games. ... Vazquez became the first pitcher in Yankees history to hit three batters in an inning and only the third to ever hit three in a game. It had not been done by a Yankee in 56 years, since Tom Morgan hit three Red Sox on June 30, 1954. ... Friday's pitching matchup: Andy Pettitte (11-2, 2.81) vs. RHP Josh Beckett (5-5, 5.71). First pitch, 7:05 p.m. ET.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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