- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For the past two weeks, as the New York Yankees' lead over the rest of the AL East has steadily melted away, the Yankees' players have behaved like unfortunate souls trapped in an elevator with its cable cut.
We're still three games ahead, they would say. We're still two games ahead. We're still one game ahead . . .
Call it confidence or call it denial, but that elevator has hit the ground floor and there is no guarantee its downward plunge will stop anytime soon.
Tuesday night's 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, coupled with a 12-0 victory by the Baltimore Orioles over the Blue Jays in Toronto, has landed the Yankees on a floor they haven't occupied in nearly three months.
Suddenly -- well, maybe not so suddenly -- the team that was running away with the AL East on July 18 finds itself in a flat-footed tie, the first time they have had to share the division lead with another club since June 11.
And the way they are playing -- and the way their main rivals are playing -- they could well be five games behind by the time their upcoming four-game series with the Orioles ends on Sunday.
Already, if they fail to make the playoffs, they will have made Yankees history; no other Yankees team has ever led its division by 10 games only to collapse its way out of October.
And this year, of course, the safety net of the wild card no longer exists; in 2012, all that being the fourth-best team in the AL guarantees anyone is one more game, the one-game play-in against the fifth-best team.
Make no mistake about it, this is now officially a crisis. Before the game, Girardi was asked if he thought it was irrelevant that his team had squandered nine games of its 10-game lead.
He maintained it was; his argument was that a one-game lead was a one-game lead, whether a team had climbed from five games back, or plummeted from 10 games ahead.
And when it was pointed out to him that the former example would be that of a team trending upward and the latter an example of a team trending downward, the manager said that in baseball, trends were not important because they were so unpredictable.
Maybe so. Maybe the Yankees will shake off their current lethargy and wind up winning the division by a half-dozen games.
Or maybe, the downward spiral that began on July 18 -- they are 19-25 since reaching their high-water mark of 57-34 and 10 games ahead of the Orioles -- is of the kind that ends in total disaster.
Certainly, right now it looks like disaster is a lot more likely than redemption for this team.
Certainly, 44 games of sub-mediocrity cannot be called a little bump in the road anymore than the Grand Canyon can be called a little divot in the ground.
For the first 91 games of the season, the Yankees were the best team in baseball.
For their last 44, they couldn't even be called a good one.
Now, there are 27 games left in which the outcome of this season will be written and the futures of many individuals, from the GM to the manager to just about anyone in their clubhouse, may well be forever altered. That's how serious this is right now.
"We're just not getting it done right now," a sometimes somber, sometimes gratuitously feisty Girardi said in his office after the game. "As a club, we're just not hitting the ball very well."
It's an irrefutable statement that also glosses over the fact that while hitting might be the problem this week, it does not explain the Yankees' depressing ordinariness for a stretch that not encompasses more than one-quarter of the season.
Just consider some of the names the Yankees have made prominent over the past month simply by becoming victims of them: Justin Masterson. Ricky Romero. Miguel Gonzalez. Monday afternoon, Chris Gimenez, a September callup hitting .181. Tuesday night, a .500 pitcher named Alex Cobb.
The Yankees scored a pair of runs off Cobb in the first inning on Robby Cano's 29th home run of the season -- and managed just five singles the rest of the way.
Not even a tried-and-true managerial tactic, the old get-tossed-and-fire-up-the-team gambit, worked -- after Girardi got himself tossed for arguing a called third strike against Chris Dickerson in the fourth inning, the Yankees' offense went even deeper into the shell it has been hiding in lately, not managing another hit until Derek Jeter's single with one out in the eighth.
To make a strange night even more bizarre, Girardi refused to discuss the reasons for his ejection and suggested reporters simply write that the Yankee manager had no comment.
But his actions during the game and his silence after it spoke volumes. The Yankees, and their manager, aren't just pushing the panic button. They are sitting on it.
"You've gotta play," was Girardi's response when asked what the club needed to do to pull out of its tailspin. "That's all you can do. Put out good at-bats, and try to make pitches. It's baseball. You've got to find a way to get it done."
That is like saying the way to become rich is to go out and get yourself a million dollars.
Clearly, the Yankees manager has no answers for a problem that for the longest time he simply refused to acknowledge even existed.
Now, it is staring him, and his players, in the face, and no one seems to know what to do about it.
Like his manager, Jeter says he is optimistic that the Yankees' fortunes will change over these last 27 games. Also like his manager, he can offer no specific reasons that explain how or why.
"Because it's happened before," he said. "Seems like the same story every day. Teams struggle at times; it's contagious both in good ways and bad. We're scuffling a little bit, but hopefully we'll be able to break out of it tomorrow."
Needing a big performance out of Freddy Garcia, the Yankees got a Freddy Garcia performance. Which is to say, a little sleight of hand -- he struck out four batters in the first two innings -- and a lot of thunder the second time through the batting order -- home runs by Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings and B.J. Upton.
For the third time in his last four outings, Garcia could barely get by the fifth inning, and although the bullpen performed well -- Cody Eppley and Joba Chamberlain combined for 2 2/3 hitless innings and four strikeouts -- the 5-2 hole Garcia left the Yankees in proved to be too much for them to overcome.
"We've got great talent on this team," said Cano, who overcame the hip ailment that caused him to allow Gimenez's game-winning hit to skip under his glove on Monday. "Nobody wanted to be in this situation, but this is part of the game. We've got to go out there, forget about what happened in the past, and start from zero tomorrow."
Jeter also continued to cling to the belief that the lethargic, aging team the Yankees have been for the past 44 games will soon vanish, to be magically replaced over the final 27 by the juggernaut they had been up until July 18.
"It's a long season," he said. "You're going to have ups and downs. When you have them at the beginning of the year, people pay a lot of attention to it like they did this year. When you do it at the end of the year, people pay more attention to it as opposed to if it happens in the middle of the season. We still have games left, we have to find ways to win and that's the bottom line. Nothing has changed. You hope you have that one game where everything seems to snowball from there."
Right now, the only thing that is snowballing for the Yankees is failure, and they've got 27 games in which to halt the slide.
Tied in the East, the Yanks aren't pushing the panic button. They're sitting on it.