- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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CHICAGO -- A little more than a month ago, the AL East race was a joke. The New York Yankees were ahead by 10 games and their starting rotation, a weak link in the chain in April, had solidified into one of the most reliable units on the team throughout June and the first half of July.
But no one is laughing now.
Since the All-Star break, the team loses just as often as it wins -- Tuesday night's 7-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox made the Yankees' record 19-18 since the break -- and more disturbingly, the rotation has fallen apart due to a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness.
And suddenly, the cracks are beginning to show.
Although they got a break when the Tampa Bay Rays, their nearest pursuers, lost a 1-0 game to the Kansas City Royals in 10 innings, the Rays are hot on the Yankees' heels, trailing by just four games.
And the Baltimore Orioles, who refuse to go away, pulled to within five games with a win over the Rangers in Arlington.
No wonder the manager is snapping at reporters when he really wants to throttle his starting pitcher, and the players are scattering from the postgame clubhouse as if the ballpark had caught fire.
I asked Joe Girardi a simple question after the game -- "If Nova's problems are purely mechanical, whose responsibility is it to fix them?" -- and he reacted as if I had insulted his mother.
Or, more accurately, his pitching coach, since he accused me of asking him to blame Larry Rothschild.
Which told me, of course, that he is really furious with Nova.
Later, we cleared it up -- I explained to him that I wasn't looking to blame Rothschild, merely to determine if Nova's mechanical flaws had been sufficiently pointed out to him and if so, was the pitcher (A) failing to implement the remedies or (B) simply unable, physically or mentally, to do so?
"It's on him," Girardi told me. "He's able to do it sometimes, and at other times he's not. He doesn't do it consistently."
There are still 39 games left to play, time enough to right a sinking ship -- or time enough to hit rock bottom. The Yankees can still run off with this division, or they can blow the whole thing and find themselves scampering to salvage the consolation prize of a wild-card berth, and the risky one-game play-in it entails.
Such a thing never seemed possible a month ago.
And one of the biggest reasons the Yankees are in this quandary is Nova.
Once hailed as the pitcher who did not know how to lose, Nova has, over the past six weeks, deteriorated into the man who has forgotten how to win.
The same kid who ran off 15 straight wins at one point in his career is now 1-3 over his past eight starts, with a 7.02 ERA. He has allowed 60 hits -- that's right, 60! -- over his past 41 innings pitched, eight of them home runs.
The one he gave up to Kevin Youkilis on Tuesday night, on an arrow-straight fastball in the fifth inning with the bases loaded, was a killer for his team. His line -- 6 IP, 7 H, 6 ER, 2 HRs -- wasn't even close to his worst of this stretch.
But it was plenty bad enough to cost the Yankees a game.
And this game could not have started out any better for the Yankees. Derek Jeter, who seems determined to catch Pete Rose by the end of the week, belted Francisco Liriano's first pitch of the game into the White Sox bullpen. By the end of the first inning, the Yankees had a 2-0 lead.
And by the end of the fifth inning, it was 6-2 White Sox and the game was effectively over.
"Well, I mean he's struggled, no doubt," Girardi said of Nova. "The second half he has struggled. He has not located like he did in the first half. His off-speed [pitch] has not been consistent."
The manager predictably sidestepped the question of whether Nova's spot in the rotation was in jeopardy, especially with CC Sabathia likely coming off the disabled list this weekend, Andy Pettitte expected back sometime in September and David Phelps having pitched well in an admittedly small sample of spot starts.
"We're not there yet," Girardi said. "You guys know I'm not gonna talk about it two minutes after the game. I know you have to ask but our plan is for him to start."
At this point, the Yankees really have no choice. Phil Hughes, who now inherits the responsibility of staving off a sweep in Wednesday's series finale, has been inconsistent, although better than Nova. Freddy Garcia got lit up pretty good here Monday night.
And Girardi still has to figure out what to do with Joba Chamberlain, the most likely candidate to walk the plank when Sabathia is ready to come back.
"I mean, we haven't talked about what we're going to do," Girardi said on Tuesday. "We're not that far along. We got to wait to make sure CC is OK tomorrow before we make any decisions."
And what if he isn't? Well, that is a prospect too frightening even to consider right now.
On this night, the problem is Nova, whose happy-go-lucky demeanor, once seen as an attribute, might be starting to rankle his manager and pitching coach.
He called himself "the best pitcher in the universe" after beating Clay Buchholz at Fenway Park in April, and even in the depth of his current struggles never seems to grasp the seriousness of his plight.
"I feel so bad that I got the lead and one more time screwed up," he said. "I'm really bad on myself right now. I'm not happy. I'm just mad. I know I'm not doing my job and I don't feel good."
He was smiling when he said it. He attributed this loss, as he has several others, to, "Only two pitches. Only two pitches."
Then he amended it to, "Only one pitch. It's always one pitch."
And when asked if he had been made aware of any mechanical flaws in his delivery that were causing him to mislocate his fastball, Nova said, "I been looking at my videos. Me, I don't see anything."
But the Yankees see a lead that seemed so secure a month ago steadily melting away, and the only way to stop the trend is by getting the kind of pitching they were getting in June from Sabathia and Pettitte and Hughes. And Nova.
"I mean, it's substantial," Girardi said of Nova's second-half swoon. "He's struggled and he has to find a way to turn it around. He has to reach down and find a way."
The way he said it, you have to wonder if, deep down, Joe Girardi really believes Ivan Nova is capable of doing that.
One of the biggest reasons the Yankees' AL East lead is dwindling? Ivan Nova.