ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- There are days when Robinson Cano can serve as the perfect microcosm of the team he plays for. So talented. So puzzling.
And right now, so lost.
The Yankees lost another game on Monday -- 4-3 to the Tampa Bay Rays -- to shave their lead over the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East to a single game, and they lost it because Cano, the player with the most pure talent on their roster, allowed a ground ball to scoot under his glove in the eighth inning.
For Cano's sake, you hope that what he said after the game -- that he felt something funny in his hip that prevented him making the play -- is true.
Because the alternative might be even worse.
Either Robinson Cano was too injured to get to that ball or he didn't try hard enough. There is no third choice.
As deep a chunk as the injury monster has taken out of the Yankees this season, losing Cano at this point might very well be the death blow.
And yet, wouldn't it be more comforting to know that it was an injury, and not something else, that caused Cano to half-step a play a high school second baseman would eat a mouthful of dirt to make?
"I thought he was going to get there," said Joe Girardi, who is starting to wear that death-warmed-over look he gets this time of year. "He didn't, and it's unfortunate. That's why we lost."
The ball came off the bat of Chris Gimenez with a runner on second, and once it got past Cano and rolled slowly into right field, it was easy for Ryan Roberts to score what would turn out to be the winning run from second.
It wasn't hit especially hard, but with Cano shaded toward second against the right-handed-hitting Gimenez, it was going to take a little extra effort to keep it from leaving the infield.
Cano, who plays so effortlessly it sometimes appears he is loafing, did not make that extra effort. He did not dive after the ball or lay full-out or do anything to accomplish the one mission that should have been foremost in his mind, which is keeping that ball in front of him.
Instead, he watched helplessly as the ball hugged the rug and kept on going. And with it went the game.
"I had it there, it was just my left foot just came up and I just felt my left hip a little bit," Cano said. "Right when I tried to bend, my left foot just came straight up and I felt my hip. It will be hopefully just nothing bad."
Cano spent some time in the trainer's room after the game with an ice pack on his hip and said he was not sure if he would be able to play on Tuesday.
"It's just tight right now," he said. "Hopefully nothing bad or anything. Let's see how it feels tomorrow."
There had been another play, a half inning earlier, in which Cano did not run out of the box on a line drive hit right at third baseman Elliot Johnson. Johnson dropped the ball, fumbled it and made an off-line throw to first but still nipped Cano after his late start.
But that one was more an error of perception -- the majority of pro ballplayers stop running when they think they have lined out, and with two out and no one on base, it probably wouldn't have made a difference anyway.
But failing to make that play in the bottom of the inning was reality, the grim reality that the just about all of the equity the Yankees had amassed with their exceptional June had now been frittered away through July, August and the first three days of September.
"The way you come out of things like this is by doing the little things," said Alex Rodriguez, who returned to the lineup for the first time since July 24 with a single and a run scored in the fourth. "If we focus on doing the little things and become masters at those, we don't have to worry about big things."
Keeping that ball from leaving the infield is one of those little things A-Rod is talking about, and it became a big thing when the Orioles completed a 4-0 win over the Blue Jays in Toronto.
"I think Robbie thought he was going to get to it; that's the bottom line," Girardi said when he was asked if Cano should have dived for the ball. "It's pretty hard to complain about Robbie's defense. I think he probably thought he was going to get to it the way he went after it."
But even Girardi had to acknowledge, "You've got to try to do everything you can to stop it."
The Yankees got a serviceable performance out of CC Sabathia, who got victimized in the second inning by a couple of bloop singles accounting for the Rays' first run, gave up a long home run to B.J. Upton in the third for the second run and did a good job of escaping a second-and-third, no-out jam in the fifth with just one run.
And aside from that fourth inning, the Yankees showed none of the spark or urgency you would expect from a team fighting for its playoff life. Still, Girardi said he believed his club would pull out of its tailspin, which is now at 19-24 since the Yankees reached their high-water mark of 23 games over .500 and a 10-game lead in the division on July 18.
"I'm always positive; that's my personality," he said. "I've said it all along: These guys have found a way to get it done all year long through a lot of adversity, through a lot of injuries, through a lot of different things that we've been through. I believe they're going to do it. That's who they are and I believe in them."
There are still 28 games to play and the Yankees are still loaded with talent, some of which -- Mark Teixeira and Andy Pettitte, in particular -- is expected to rejoin the team sometime in the next couple of weeks.
But in a game they needed to win, the most talented Yankee of them all was unable to make a play they needed him to make.
"It's not a good feeling," Cano said of the sudden turn the Yankees' season has taken. "You don't want to put your head down. Just got to turn the page. It's a little bit hard, but you don't want to send negative messages to your brain. You've got to be positive and just mentally prepare for tomorrow."
In a season that seems to become more puzzling with each passing day, no Yankee is tougher to figure out than Robinson Cano.