- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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CHICAGO -- It wasn't exactly Billy Martin and the Marshmallow Salesman, but it was probably as close as the normally mild-mannered Joe Girardi will ever get.
As the New York Yankees manager was about to begin his postgame news conference, the booming voice of an over-sized, and possibly over-served, Chicago White Sox fan echoed through the concrete hallway beneath U.S. Cellular Field.
"Hey, Girardi, you bum! The Yankees suck!"
Maybe it was the fact that the Yankees had just gotten swept by the White Sox, or maybe it was the heartbreaking nature of Wednesday night's 2-1 loss, or maybe it was the fact that the Yankees had not had a day off in 20 days.
Probably, it was a combination of all of the above, plus the fact that the Yankees' lead in the AL East, which peaked at 10 games in July, had dwindled to a mere three.
Because suddenly, there was Girardi breaking out of the pack, leaving a YES Network camera crew shooting his back and a gang of reporters watching in bemused disbelief as he shouted at the top of his lungs to a total stranger on his way out of the ballpark.
"Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Shut up! I'm doing an interview!" he bellowed.
Then Girardi turned to a stadium security guard. "Do something, would you? Shut this guy up," he asked.
"Yeah, kick me out!" the fan said, laughing, as he headed out the door.
"Jesus, for crying out loud," Girardi muttered as he headed back into the media scrum.
That's the kind of night it was for the Yankees and especially their tightly wound, but generally self-controlled manager, the kind of night that taunts and teases but ultimately leaves you unsatisfied and a little ticked off.
For the first time in nearly a month, the Yankees got a terrific pitching performance out of Phil Hughes, and they wasted it.
They wasted it because other than Derek Jeter, their hitters couldn't do a thing with Chris Sale, who turned in probably the most dominating performance they've seen from a starting pitcher all season, and because Hughes, whose bugaboo all year has been allowing home runs, allowed a game-winner in the sixth inning.
Now, with the Rays so close the Yankees can practically smell what they had for lunch, it is more than just a pennant race that is tightening up.
"That's baseball," Girardi said, trying his best to look and sound unconcerned. "It's what you go through. You know that the season's not over after 120 games, it's not over after 140; you have to play 162. We're going to play the teams that we need to win against, that's the bottom line. We still have the lead."
Jeter, who does not have to put on an act, was somewhat more convincing.
"You don't look at the standings in April, May, June, July," he said. "At least I never have. I think it's too early. We still have 30-something games. It would concern you if you're chasing somebody and you don't have the chance to play them because then you don't control it. But we play everyone. It's going to be tough, but all the teams that are close to us, we play, and if we win, we win."
It was Jeter's home run off Sale in the top of the sixth, just the Yankees' third hit of the game, that was the biggest tease of all. That tied the game at 1 -- the White Sox scratched across a third-inning run on a double, an infield single and a sacrifice fly -- and put the Yankees in a marvelous position to pull out the win and stave off a sweep in the final three innings.
But Hughes, needing a shutdown inning in the bottom of the sixth, instead grooved an 0-1 fastball to Alex Rios and when the ball came down in the left-field seats, the White Sox and Sale had all they would need.
Using a fastball that topped out at 97 mph, the 23-year-old lefty with the "funky" -- Jeter's word -- delivery struck out 13 batters, walked only one and won his 15th game of the season.
"We didn't get much going on against him," said Jeter, who homered in all three games here to run his season total to 13, more than twice as many as he hit in 2011. "We really didn't have him in trouble all night. He's a handful."
This was by far the best game the Yankees played in the series -- they had lost, 9-6, when the bullpen imploded on Monday and got blown out, 7-3, when Ivan Nova surrendered a grand slam to Kevin Youkilis on Tuesday -- but still, it wasn't enough to end this streak of 20 games on a positive note.
Over the stretch, the Yankees went 11-9, not terrible, but they are 15-17 since attaining that 10-game lead, a full 20 percent of the season in which they have been less than mediocre.
To Jeter and some of his teammates, the skid is nothing to worry about, just part of the normal ups-and-downs that every team goes through over the course of a season.
"Oh, is it down to three games?" Nick Swisher said.
Asked if he was worried, Swisher said, "No, not really. That's not my style. Maybe somebody else is, but not me, man. I know the talent we have in here and I know what we're capable of doing. It's just not coming out right now."
Like Girardi, he cited the 20-game stretch as physically and mentally debilitating and welcomed Thursday's off day before a three-game weekend series in Cleveland.
But Mark Teixeira acknowledged that even if the Yankees are still in first place, it is less than comforting to watch a seemingly solid lead melt away.
"I look at the standings," he said. "It's hard not to. It's on every scoreboard in baseball every place you go."
But his approach to the team's decline was more philosophical than panicky. "We probably didn't deserve to have a 10-game lead anyway," he said. "No one ever thought we were going to run away with this thing. We always knew it was going to be a battle. This is probably where we're supposed to be."
Down the stretch, the Yankees have six games left with Tampa Bay and seven more with the Baltimore Orioles, who are five games back in third place.
"When you get down to Sept. 30 and you're down one with two to play, then you're like 'Oh my goodness,'" Teixeira said. "You notice it because it's everywhere, but until that happens, it's not really anything to worry about."
Tell that to Joe Girardi, who with 38 games left to play and a three-game lead in the division, is already starting to behave like Billy Martin, whose infamous 1979 fistfight with Joseph Cooper led to his second firing by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
Marshmallow salesmen throughout the league, beware.
With the Rays closing in, it's more than a pennant race that is tightening up.