- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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DETROIT -- The New York Yankees now have lost seven of their past 10 games, 12 of their past 18 and 13 of the 24 they have played since the All-Star break.
They have seen their lead in the American League East shrink from a high of 10 games on July 18 to where it sits right now, a mere 4½ games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles -- their narrowest lead since June 29.
After three months of playing without their closer, six weeks without their No. 2 starter and two weeks without their starting third baseman, they are beginning to show signs of fraying at the edges.
While they are in no danger of missing out on the postseason, there is no guarantee anymore that they will win their division and escape the crapshoot of the one-game play-in.
And if it turns out that, once again, their division series opponent is the Detroit Tigers, you would have to call them the underdogs to advance to the AL Championship Series.
After all, any team that has a defending AL MVP in Justin Verlander poised to start twice in five games and a looming AL MVP in Miguel Cabrera sitting in the middle of its lineup has got to be the favorite -- especially based on its performance in the first two games here this week.
No wonder Eric Chavez -- one of the few productive hitters in the Yankees' lineup Tuesday night and one of a small handful of honest voices in their clubhouse after their 6-5 loss to the Tigers at Comerica Park -- had this to say when asked what the level of concern around the team is right now:
"There should be a high level of concern. Anybody who says that there isn't is lying. You've just got to win ballgames, and we're not finding a way to do that, and it should be a concern. It's that time of the year when, yeah, it is a concern."
Chavez had no way of knowing, of course, that Joe Girardi had just shrugged off the latest loss -- the second in two nights to the surging Tigers -- as only another of the periodic struggles every ballclub goes through. Or that Curtis Granderson had predicted, in typical Granderson style, that the Yankees would either get better, get worse or stay the same over the final 53 games of the season.
All he knew was that if this is just a routine cyclical downturn for the ballclub, it has been an unusually long cycle.
"It is a bad stretch, and we're not playing good," Chavez said. "But I'm a big believer in when things are going good, bad is around the corner, and when bad is here, good is around the corner. That's what keeps me going."
Chavez kept the Yankees going twice in this game, homering off Rick Porcello in the fourth to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead and singling with one out in the ninth to begin a rally against Detroit closer Jose Valverde -- a rally that fell a run shy when Granderson popped out to the infield with the tying and go-ahead runs on second and third.
"That's who we are. That's what our guys do," Girardi said. "Unfortunately, we came up one hit short. But I like what they did."
Yes, the Yankees still fight to the last out and never give up a game, an at-bat or a pitch.
But more often than not these days, they fall short. After playing the best baseball of any team in the league for the month of June, the Yankees have been the definition of mediocrity in the five weeks since -- 13-13 in July and 3-3 in August so far.
On Monday night, they ran into a buzzsaw in Verlander, who struck out 14 batters and did not allow an earned run in eight innings. On Tuesday night, they put a minor dent in Porcello early but quickly saw it rubbed out when Phil Hughes -- one of the main reasons they played so well in June, when he went 4-1 with a 2.67 ERA -- slipped back to one of his worst performances of the season, unable to complete five innings due to a high pitch count and allowing four runs on eight hits.
Between Ivan Nova on Monday night, Hughes on Tuesday and a variety of relievers, the Tigers have put up 26 hits over two games. More alarmingly, they have Cabrera, whom the Yankees can neither pitch around -- Prince Fielder follows him in the lineup -- nor get out in a key situation.
Cabrera hit a 454-foot homer off Nova on Monday and followed it up Tuesday with a less-majestic shot off Hughes, as well as a two-run double.
Although it was the 26th home run Hughes has allowed this season, tying him with three other pitchers for the major league lead, it was relatively undamaging since no one was on.
But when Hughes fell behind Cabrera 2-0 in the fifth, with runners on first and third and one out, you could almost predict what was coming -- a topspin-charged laser beam into the left-field corner off a hanging curveball that gave the Tigers a 4-2 lead. They added a run in the sixth off Cody Eppley and another in the eighth off Joba Chamberlain, and that turned out to be just enough.
"It was tough," Hughes said. "I feel like I couldn't locate my breaking ball when I needed to, and that was probably the biggest thing. They were able to foul some balls off and grind some at-bats out."
Hughes' inability to put hitters away, an old bugaboo he seemed to have licked, ultimately did him in. A 12-pitch at-bat that ended in a single by Brennan Boesch contributed to a 44-pitch fourth inning that left Hughes spent for the fifth.
"They just put him in long counts and until they got a pitch they could hit," Girardi said of the Tigers' lineup. "We were hoping [Hughes] could get through five but he wasn't able to get through that fifth."
Other than that, Girardi seemed to have no real solution as to why his team, which was winning with almost machine-like precision a month ago, seems to suddenly have forgotten how to do it.
"It's been a struggle for us, and there's no doubt about it," he said. "But the first month, we struggled and we came out of it. We'll come out of it. I mean, we will. Every club goes through it. And when we went through it the first time, I said it may not be the last time, either. You just go through them."
But Chavez did not reject the notion that besides "not playing very well," the Yankees might be flawed in a way that their run of success in June only temporarily disguised.
"I think the injury bug is starting to catch up to us," he said. "I think we got away with it early."
He pointed to the loss of Alex Rodriguez as a major factor in the lack of offense. And indeed, since A-Rod went down with a broken hand July 25, the Yankees are 4-7.
Also, the moving of Granderson into the leadoff spot has not worked so far; with his 0-for-5 night Tuesday, he now is 2-for-20 in the five games since Girardi elevated him to the top of the batting order.
"Nothing to do with it," Granderson said. "If you're not hitting, you're not hitting; it doesn't matter where you happen to be batting."
Asked whether the team was actually playing better than its recent record would indicate, Russell Martin -- along with Chavez one of the few Yankees willing to peel the sugarcoating off an ugly stretch -- just shook his head.
"No," he said. "We're not playing very good. We're not playing very good. We're going to have to pick it up. We have some tough teams coming up. We have to finish this here, so hopefully we can win the next two and split it, then just keep on going with our road trip."
There are two more games left here, and then a trip to Toronto to face a Blue Jays team that can hit and always plays the Yankees tough at home.
"We've done it before," Girardi said of his club's ability to rebound. "It's not something that's new. You're going to have to do that at times. As I said, we were one hit away."
Sounds a lot like what Girardi was saying last October, after a similar loss to the same team. A loss that ended a season that, like this one, once seemed full of promise.
8hRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com