- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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BOSTON -- The evidence has been piling up for nearly two months, to the point that it is now becoming overwhelming, if not quite beyond a reasonable doubt: The New York Yankees simply may not be good enough to win the AL East this year.
That doesn't mean they won't, of course. Nowhere does it say, to the most deserving go the spoils.
But the Yankees team that lost to the Boston Red Sox, 4-3, Tuesday night at Fenway Park looked neither good enough nor deserving enough to represent what used to be known as baseball's best division in postseason play.
Consider the facts: Playing a game they had to win, against a team that had lost 11 of its past 12 games, and aware that the Baltimore Orioles, their divisional rivals, were on their way to a victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, the third horse in this race, the Yankees were unable to capitalize on a night in which they were given eight free baserunners, including seven walks in the first five innings by the ace of the Red Sox pitching staff.
They lost this one in a way that has become all-too-familiar this season, by failing to come up with more than one timely hit -- Derek Jeter's two-run double in the sixth -- all game.
But the Yankees have found many ways to lose this season, and the recurring problem of failure with runners in scoring position is just one of them. There have been pitching lapses, and fielding lapses, and baserunning lapses, and power outages.
Tuesday night, they actually found a way to combine all of those factors into a loss so dispiriting that afterward, when Nick Swisher said, "We got a lot of talent in here, man, and when you start putting it all together ," you just wanted to clap a hand over his mouth to save him the embarrassment.
Thankfully, Swisher stopped himself in midsentence.
There are now 21 games left in the season, and time is running out for this stellar assemblage of talent (sarcasm fully intended) to put anything together but early-October golf foursomes.
For a while there, I was willing to buy the premise that these Mediocre Yankees, the team that has now gone 22-28 since reaching its high-water mark on July 18, was the aberration and that the Powerhouse Yankees we had seen in June and for the first half of July was the real thing.
But now it seems pretty obvious to all but the most hopelessly in denial that the June Yankees, the 20-7 Yankees who were on their way to a 10-game cushion in the division, was the mirage.
The Yankees we're seeing now are the grim reality. This has just been going on too long for it to be anything else.
Do you know the last time the Yankees even managed to win as many as two games in a row? Try back on Aug. 14, when they were in the middle of a three-game winning streak.
That was nearly a month ago. Since then, it's been win one, lose one, win one, lose two, win one, lose three.
No team can win a playoff series like that, and this team certainly can't win the division like that, not when the Orioles continue to play the way they're playing.
Everything about the remaining schedule favors the Yankees. But everything about the Yankees right now favors just about anyone else.
"What we need to do is, we need to get on a run," Joe Girardi said. "Our guys were patient tonight and got their walks, we just didn't get the hits. It's been a number of reasons why we haven't gotten on a run. It hasn't been one aspect of the game, but we need to do it."
No. It's been every aspect of the game.
In this one, RISP failure reared its ugly head again; aside from Jeter's ground-rule double that skipped into the right-field seats, the Yankees were 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position.
Poor managerial decisions came into play: Girardi asked David Robertson, who has been erratic lately, to do something he hasn't done all season, get six outs; and he asked Eduardo Nunez, who has made four cameo appearances in the majors after spending most of the year either in Triple-A or on the DL, to steal a base in the ninth inning with Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano, arguably his two best hitters, waiting to drive him in.
Both decisions blew up in Girardi's face.
Inattentive fielding was on display: Boone Logan never made a move toward a slow roller hit to his left by Jacoby Ellsbury, resulting in a cheap infield hit. The Red Sox failed to score in the inning, but no matter; the incident highlighted the fact that at a point in the season where the Yankees need to be playing their best baseball, they can't even perform the barest fundamentals.
And now, it's getting more and more difficult to explain away the truth: This may just be the best baseball the Yankees are capable of playing.
Suddenly, Jeter's vaunted talent for simplifying the game is starting to sound more like a lack of ideas. "You've got to try to string together some wins, that's the bottom line," he said. "If we keep winning and losing, winning and losing, then the other teams do the same, they're going to gain ground on you. That's pretty much it. We need to string together some wins."
No insight, however, into how the Yankees plan to go about doing that.
Girardi, a renowned baseball mind, was even vaguer than his captain. "You've got to keep fighting," he said. "You've got to score runs. That's the bottom line. You've got to score runs."
And Swisher, whose boundless enthusiasm begins to sound like desperation at times like this, offered: "That's what makes this game great, you never know what's going to happen. It's not that I'm frustrated, it's just that we know that we can play better, and once we get that going, it's gonna be a lot of fun, man. I'm excited for it."
Excited for what?
The prospect, which seemed unthinkable six weeks ago but is quite real now, that this Yankees team, with the $209 million payroll and at least two certain Hall of Famers on its roster, will accomplish something no other Yankees team in history has, namely fail to make the playoffs after taking a 10-game lead in the division?
Or that it can make history of another kind, being the first Yankees team to have to win a wild-card play-in game to qualify for October, a crapshoot for the best of teams and a daunting prospect for an aging squad that might well need to exhaust all its remaining resources just to get that far?
The Yankees took a 1-0 first inning lead but let Jon Lester off the hook, Curtis Granderson fouling out to leave the bases loaded. They failed in two shots to get a runner in from second in the next inning. They started the third with two free baserunners -- Lester walked A-Rod and Cano -- and came up empty when Russell Martin and Steve Pearce and Granderson grounded out.
By the time we got around to Robertson, and the game-winning single by Ellsbury in the bottom of the ninth, the game already felt lost. And by the way, have I mentioned that the Red Sox had only two previous walk-off wins all season?
Teams like Boston have no business winning games like this. And teams like the Yankees have no business losing them.
At least, not teams like the one we thought these Yankees were.
"Because we've done it all year, pretty much," Jeter said when asked to express the basis of his confidence. "We wouldn't be in the position we are now, tied for first, unless we found ways to win games throughout the course of 140-something games that we've played."
Jeter is right, of course, but for the wrong reasons.
The Yankees wouldn't be in the position they are in right now, tied for first place and in the fight of their lives with 21 games left in the season, if they had continued to find ways to win games after July 18.
But that seems like a different team and a different season.
Those Yankees seemed capable of winning everything.
These Yankees seem destined to blow it all.
The Bombers simply may not be good enough to win the AL East this season.