Vazquez comes up small in big spot

TORONTO -- Upon further review, the New York Yankees were better off when Javier Vazquez was hitting batters instead of bats.

On Thursday, when Vazquez went on a wild streak, plunking three consecutive Tampa Bay Rays, he only cost the Yankees two runs in what turned out to be a 10-3 loss.

On Wednesday night at the Rogers Centre, he hit no batsmen, but plenty of bats. In fact, he hit three of those bats so hard the baseballs wound up flying over the wall. On this night, he cost the Yankees seven runs and, more importantly, a golden opportunity to retake first-place in the American League East on a night when the Rays lost to the Baltimore Orioles.

In the final analysis, his performance might wind up costing the Yankees home-field advantage in the postseason and an early-October exit from the playoffs.

"We're trying to win our division, we had a chance to gain a game on them, and we didn't do it,'' a tight-lipped Joe Girardi, the Yankees' manager, said. "That's a missed opportunity, it is.''

But who, ultimately, is to blame here? Vazquez, who has had an absolutely putrid season in his second go-round with the Yankees and only pitched to his customary form? Or Girardi, who talks one game and manages another on an almost nightly basis?

The possibility remains, of course, that the Yankees will shrug off this horrendous September and rebound to give their followers a glorious October. If so, many of Girardi's moves -- admittedly so easy to criticize now -- may come to seem inspired, or at very least harmless.

But when a manager claims his aim is to win the division -- to overtake a talented and resilient team that his trails by a half-game and which holds a game in hand -- and wants to do it so badly that he fields a lineup featuring the players on his roster most in need of rest, then how does he justify starting a pitcher like Vazquez in such an important game?

How does he go to Derek Jeter (at 36 the oldest starting shortstop in the league) and to Alex Rodriguez (35 and with a balky, surgically repaired hip that does not respond well to many games on a surface as unforgiving as the Rogers Centre turf) and to Mark Teixeira (hobbled lately by a broken toe and a bruised thumb) and to Nick Swisher (still slowed by a bruised knee) and to Robinson Cano (who has had three days off all season) and say,"Guys, I really need you tonight,'' and then send Javier Vazquez out there to pitch?

Vazquez's meltdown was absolutely predictable; Girardi's decision to start him in a game as vital as this was incredibly puzzling. You might almost make the argument that it was a case of managerial sabotage.

On Thursday, when Vazquez publicly unraveled against the Rays, Girardi mocked this reporter's question about why he had left him in there, and he had a point. At the time, with his bullpen fried, the manager's options truly were limited.

Not so this time. Girardi could have gone to Dustin Moseley, a journeyman stopgap, admittedly, but certainly more reliable than Vazquez. Or he could have gone to Ivan Nova, the wunderkind with the live arm who lately can give the Yankees five innings, no more or less. Girardi wound up using four relievers anyway Wednesday night. Might Girardi have been better off using those four in relief of Nova? Even Sergio Mitre, who struck out the side in his one inning of work, would have been a safer choice than a guy who clearly knows he isn't wanted here, and lately has pitched and acted as though the feeling is mutual.

"Today was an important day for me personally and it didn't go too well,'' Vazquez said, having allowed seven runs in 4 1/3 innings, with a home runs-to-strikeouts ratio of 3-0. As in three homers, zero strikeouts. "Of course, if I had thrown the ball better, it would have helped my case, but I didn't have nothing tonight. My pitches weren't sharp at all.''

Help his case? For what? Does he really think there is still a chance the Yankees would carry him on their postseason roster, let alone allow him to pitch in a game? Well, incredibly, Girardi did not rule it out.

"We'll have a lot of discussions over the weekend and we'll see,'' Girardi said. "We'll try to get him an inning out of the bullpen maybe on Sunday.''

That sounds like a great idea, especially if, somehow, the division championship is still in play by then. Chances are it will not be. The Yankees need to sweep the Red Sox at Fenway while hoping the Rays will split their final four games -- one against the Orioles and the final three in Kansas City against the bottom-feeding Royals -- to win the division. A tie does them no good, since the Yankees lost their season series with the Rays, 10-8.

But then, Girardi says a lot of things he either doesn't mean or changes his mind about soon afterward. Before the game, he refused to commit to Andy Pettitte as his Game 2 starter in the ALDS, even though he really has no other viable option. (You really want to see A.J. Burnett pitching a possible Game 5? As a friend of mine said during the game, "It's CC and Pettitte, and then forget it!'')

Girardi plays coy about his plans for Burnett and Phil Hughes, won't tell you if he plans on using three starters or four (the guess here is three in the first round), and, as late as Tuesday night, gave every indication that he would be resting his veteran regulars Wednesday night so they could enjoy the benefits of two consecutive days off, including Thursday's travel day.

And yet he sent them out, minus Jorge Posada, knowing at least in the back of his mind the starting pitcher would dig a hole it would be impossible for them to crawl out of. "We just gave them too big a lead at the beginning of the game,'' Girardi said. "But our guys kept playing and playing and playing, and that's what you want to see from them.''

In this case, the kind of effort the Yankees customarily put out was totally wasted and predictably unnecessary. Jeter, Teixeira, Rodriguez, Cano and Swisher went out there in good faith and had none of it returned on the mound or from the dugout.

Asked about the blown chance to gain a game on the Rays, a subdued Jeter shrugged it off. "It doesn't make a difference,'' he said. "You can get all the help in the world, but if you don't win your games, it doesn't matter. That's the position we're in now.''

Still, he tried to make the case that a successful weekend in Boston could translate to the sort of hot streak that could carry a team through the playoffs. "I've been on teams that scuffled the last week of the season and won,'' he said. "And I've been on teams that were hot on the last week of the season. I don't really think you can explain things sometimes, I think it's just a matter of being hot when the playoffs start.''

The Yankees had the chance to begin that hot streak Wednesday night, and blew it. Or, at least, had it blown for them. Now, it looks as though the only rays they will be catching are on a beach somewhere in November.

Maybe even mid-October.

GAME NOTES: The Yankees lost the season series to the Blue Jays, too, 10-8 A-Rod hit his 30th home run in the sixth inning to extend his major-league record for consecutive seasons of 30+ homers and 100+ RBIs to 13 Francisco Cervelli reached base four times on three singles and a walk, and knocked in a run Vazquez had gone 349 consecutive games in a span of more than 10 years recording at least one strikeout, but has now failed to strike out a batter in two of his past three outings The Yankees had a great chance to climb back into the game in the sixth inning, having cut the gap to 7-3 and loaded the bases with one out. But Swisher rapped the first pitch to the second baseman for an easy inning-ending double play Jays manager Cito Gaston, who is retiring after the season and was managing his last game at the Rogers Centre, was honored in a tasteful -- and tearful -- pregame ceremony Yanks are off Thursday, but on Friday night another "must-win game'' matches Pettitte (11-3, 3.17) vs. LHP Daisuke Matsuzaka (9-6, 4.72) at Fenway Park.

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

More from ESPNNewYork.com