Yankees coming up short when it counts

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- If only the New York Yankees could hit in the clutch as well as Derek Jeter can act.

The Yankees now are 0-for-2 in playoff-preview series because they can't hit when it counts anymore. On Wednesday, Yankees starter Phil Hughes nearly pitched perfectly, except for two pitches to Tampa Bay Rays DH Dan Johnson. Johnson hit a pair of two-run homers, and the Yankees lost 4-3.

The Rays are atop Major League Baseball again. They are the ones who own home-field advantage in the American League playoffs at the moment. They are the ones who took two of three from the Yankees.

The Yankees are the ones going in the wrong direction. They have lost eight of their past 10 games. Their playoff-preview road trip (Texas and Tampa) has resulted in five losses in six games and a lot of "could haves."

"We could've easily have won five of these games," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

Alex Rodriguez added, "A hit here and a hit there, and we could've won three of five."

On Wednesday, the Yankees were 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position and left 10 men on base. The Rays, who besides Johnson had trouble touching Hughes, were 1-for-1 with runners in scoring position and left one man on base, a reflection of how well Hughes and reliever Joba Chamberlain pitched.

The best thing the Yankees have going for them is that this series had "To Be Continued" in the closing credits. The Rays visit the Bronx next week for four games. And it would shock no one if this is the AL Championship Series matchup as well.

A-Rod, for one, thought it was helpful to see Texas and Tampa up close with October around the corner.

"I'm pretty sure we will be seeing these guys in a few weeks," Rodriguez said.

In the seventh inning Wednesday, it appeared the story of the night would be Curtis Granderson hitting another late-inning, go-ahead homer and Jeter's acting chops.

The Yankees have lacked last season's knack for the pie celebration, but, although Granderson has struggled for much of the year, he has had some big hits.

In the seventh, Granderson nailed a two-run homer to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead. It was the fourth time this season Granderson had gone deep in the seventh inning or later of a game. No other Yankee has done that more than twice. Grandreson's homer was set up by a phantom hit-by-pitch.

With one out, a 91 mph missile from Chad Qualls headed inside as Jeter turned to bunt. As the sinker ran in, it faded toward Jeter's body as he tried to pull back. Initially, it appeared that it had nailed Jeter in the elbow or forearm as the ball ricocheted into fair territory and Jeter winced. Plate umpire Lance Barksdale awarded Jeter first base.

Jeter bent over as Girardi and trainer Gene Monahan rushed out to see whether he needed to come out of the game.

Where did the ball hit?

"The bat," Jeter would say later in the Yankees' clubhouse.

While Girardi and Monahan asked Jeter whether he was OK -- he said he was, by the way -- Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon watched in shock. The ball, Maddon correctly argued, hit off the knob of Jeter's bat. Jeter, a master thespian from his movie and TV appearances, acted as if he were hurt in order to take first. Maddon waved his arm, stated his case and got heaved.

"Sometimes you get hit and you don't get first," Girardi said. "Sometimes you don't get hit and you get first."

Maddon, sounding like a theater critic, gave his review of Jeter's acting.

"It's a great performance on his part," Maddon said.

That could have been the description of Hughes' performance if it weren't for the two fastballs to Johnson. He retired the first 12 batters he faced, and, with the Rays' penchant for being no-hit, it seemed as if it could be a special night for Hughes.

When Hughes is on, he is firing his fastball consistently at 93-94 mph and can pump it up to 95-96 at times. He has an above-average curveball and cutter.

On Wednesday, Hughes was on. He threw more changeups than in any other start this season. He was perfect through four innings.

But Hughes is just 24 years old and still can't always finish.

"I think it is all part of the learning process," Girardi said.

Since the All-Star break, Hughes is just 5-6 with a 5.37 ERA, but right now he might be the Yankees' No. 3 playoff starter because of A.J. Burnett's struggles. Before the All-Star break, Hughes was 11-2 with a 3.65 ERA. Hughes knew he pitched well Wednesday but not well enough.

"The only goal here is to win," Hughes said.

The real goal is to win it all. The Yankees are fine with making the playoffs as the wild card, as long as they are healthy. They played this series without both of their corner outfielders. Brett Gardner (wrist) could be back in left field by Friday, while Nick Swisher (knee) and his return to the lineup are still up in the air.

The Boston Red Sox will enter Thursday's action six games behind the Yankees in the wild-card standings. They have six more head-to-head meetings.

Over the weekend, the Yankees play in Baltimore. On Sunday, Andy Pettitte will start for the first time in two months.

Then it is four with the Rays and three with Red Sox. The Yankees hit the road to finish at Toronto and finally at Boston.

The Yankees are fading right now, but they aren't collapsing. Not yet, anyway.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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