- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- At this point in the season, it is difficult to get too worked up over the loss of any single game by the New York Yankees, or even any single player.
They blew one to the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night -- 4-3, at Tropicana Field, their eighth straight loss to the Rays at home -- yet they remain 17 games over .500 and 5½ games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles, their nearest pursuers in the AL East.
They have played all but nine games without Brett Gardner, one of their leading run producers, and still have scored more runs than all but two other AL teams. And they will be without their incomparable closer, Mariano Rivera, until sometime next year but have seen no real falloff in their ability to save games.
Even with the loss of both their ace, CC Sabathia, and Andy Pettitte, who had been their most consistent starter, they got a terrific performance out of Freddy Garcia in his first start in more than two months.
Yet, there is one player whose performance may well determine how far the Yankees go this year, and right now, his performance is decidedly subpar.
Ladies and gentlemen, right now Houdini is handcuffed, straitjacketed, chained and submerged. For the moment anyway, it looks as if he has lost his supply of keys, lock picks and hacksaws.
Whether or not this turns out to be a temporary condition could well decide how the show ends for this ballclub, because what good is having a closer as effective as Rafael Soriano if David Robertson can no longer deliver him the baseball?
The relay team of Robertson-to-Soriano-to-Rivera was a nearly unbeatable one last year, and this season, Robertson-to-Soriano with the help of a cast of situational role players looked like it could develop into a very useful substitute.
But six weeks ago, Robertson strained an oblique and, since returning to work on June 14, hasn't looked like he could consistently escape from a pair of finger cuffs.
It's not so much the numbers -- in eight appearances since coming off the DL, a span of seven innings pitched -- he has allowed just two earned runs for a 2.57 ERA.
But in several of them, he has been hit hard and, most alarmingly, has been unable to effect any of his patented escapes.
Monday night was a case in point. Called into the seventh inning of a game the Yankees were leading, 3-2, with two out, Robertson faced three batters. Two of them hit the ball hard, the third fouled out, and by the time Robertson left the mound, the Rays had taken the lead for good. Although he was not charged with an earned run, Robertson did go home with both a blown save -- his second in his past three outings -- and the loss.
It would be easy to point the finger at Boone Logan, who walked Sean Rodriguez and then wild-pitched him to second before Robertson came into the game, and even easier to blame Mark Teixeira, who allowed Elliott Johnson's hard grounder down the first-base line to skip under his glove for the three-base error that scored the winning run.
But Robertson wasn't having the easy way out. He knew the game was really lost on his fifth pitch of the outing, when he let a 3-1 fastball to pinch-hitter Brooks Conrad get enough of the plate that Conrad was able to pull it off the right-field wall for the RBI double that tied the game.
Although the run was officially Logan's, the blame was Robertson's.
"I feel like I flat-out blew the game right there," Robertson said. "I feel like that one's not on Tex. He's made amazing plays behind us all year long and he's done it for three years that he's been here. It's gonna happen. I still should have been able to get Conrad out. That one falls on me today."
Robertson has always been a stand-up guy, so that part was not unexpected. But the next part was.
"I'm very frustrated," he said. "I used to be really good at those situations. I'm not saying I can't be again but lately the last couple of outings I haven't been doing very well with them. And it's time for me to turn it around and be able to get those big outs. Right there the team needed a big out and I wasn't able to get it."
When Houdini starts to doubt that he can escape from the straitjacket, it's enough to send everyone to the nuthouse. Four games ago, Robertson was angry, and rightfully so, when Joe Girardi thrust him into a situation in which there was no margin for error -- two men on, nobody out, and the Yankees clinging to a 3-1 lead in the ninth inning.
Robertson blew that one by surrendering a three-run homer to Dayan Viciedo of the White Sox, but you came away believing as Robertson -- and his wife Erin, via a tweet -- believed, that the game would have turned out differently if Robertson had been brought in to start the inning.
But Monday night's situation was different, and seemingly tailor-made for an escape artist like Robertson. Yes, there was a runner on second, but two outs were already in the books. It was more than reasonable to believe that Robertson could come in and strike out Conrad, a .155 hitter who had fanned 12 times in 31 at-bats this season.
But Robertson fell behind, 2-0, and was forced to come back with three straight fastballs, the last of which was too fat for Conrad to resist. "Conrad's a good fastball hitter," Robertson said. "And I needed to get it inside to him. I didn't get it in enough and he got enough wood on it to put it off the wall out there. It stinks."
Robertson called his mistake "a hairline difference," and it probably was. But when you live dangerously on a nightly basis, it's almost inevitable that there will be nights you fail.
But not even Houdini could get away with failing on two nights out of three. "I mean, I know it is inevitable that you're not going to get it done every night," Robertson said. "But I feel like I should get it done every single time I take the mound. I have confidence in myself and I know that I'm capable of getting that big out. I screwed up tonight. I made a mistake and I paid for it."
As he had last Thursday, Robertson insisted he was fully recovered from the oblique injury that laid him up for a month. But that night, Girardi said one of the reasons he chose to be "cautious" with Robertson -- his reason for not bringing him in to start the ninth -- was some inconsistency in his velocity, which the manager believed could have been a by-product of the injury.
Monday night, Robertson said he felt as though he was throwing the ball "very hard," but he was clocked at 92-93 mph, a tick or two down from his pre-injury best. And of his 14 pitches, he got just one swinging strike, on a first-pitch curveball to Johnson, who ran the count full before swatting the ball under Teixeira's glove for the decisive run.
Asked what he needed to do to return to his 2011 form, when he was the hardest relief pitcher to hit and score against on the Yankees' staff, Robertson said, "I just need a higher focus, I think. That's the biggest thing. My body feels good. It's just a matter of getting out there and keeping my calm and making big pitches. And I didn't make a big pitch tonight. I just didn't make the big pitch. Usually, I'm confident and I make it and I get the out. Tonight, I couldn't do it. I didn't get it done."
For the Yankees' sake, they better hope that Robertson's condition is temporary, and that his right arm will morph back into the magic wand they depended upon so heavily last year and need to more than ever this year.
With all they have overcome so far this season, Robertson's bag of tricks may be the one they really can't afford to lose.