- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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BOSTON -- At a point in the season when the Yankees need to be playing at their best, they are playing at their worst.
At a point in their season when their pitchers need to be pinpoint precise, they have suddenly gotten sloppy. Outfielders with enough Gold Gloves to fill a wall of airport lockers are suddenly misjudging routine fly balls. Hitters known for painstakingly working the count are now swinging at first pitches, even when the opposing pitcher can't find home plate with a GPS.
And at a point in their season when the Yankees can't afford to do anything but win, all they seem to be able to do is lose.
It has gotten so bad that even Joe Girardi is beginning to lose his faith in his team's ability to sneak into the playoffs, even as the teams the Yankees are chasing continue to slow down as if trying to help them keep up.
"We stunk here," Girardi said, biting off the words as if trying to chew through a piece of rawhide. "We didn't play well here. We've got an option; we can continue to stink or play better. If we play better, we have a shot."
Sunday night's 9-2 loss to the Boston Red Sox was that kind of a game, and this three-game series -- in which the Yankees were swept and outscored 22-7 -- was that kind of series, the kind that gives even eternal optimists like Girardi the demeanor of a pallbearer.
It wasn't so much that the Yankees lost three games here; that was bad enough. It was how they lost them.
Friday night, they fell behind 4-0 in the first inning, battled back to tie and then watched their formerly reliable bullpen implode, the killing blow struck by Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who hit a grand slam off Preston Claiborne.
Saturday afternoon, it was another dispiriting performance by CC Sabathia, who put his team into a 5-1 hole it could never crawl out of.
But the Yankees saved the worst for last. On Sunday, Ivan Nova gave up three first-inning runs and couldn't get a single out in the fifth inning. Adam Warren worked his way out of one bases-loaded, no-out jam left behind by Nova -- and, an inning later, left the same situation behind for Cesar Cabral.
Ichiro Suzuki, a 10-time Gold Glove-winning outfielder, badly misjudged a routine fly ball by Xander Bogaerts that turned into a rally-starting double. Alex Rodriguez, already slowed by a hamstring strain, left the game with a calf injury of undetermined seriousness.
And a sellout crowd that had been treated to an elaborate pregame ceremony honoring Mariano Rivera wound up having to settle for Dellin Betances in the ninth inning instead, because there was nothing left to save.
No wonder Girardi, who was loose and even upbeat before the game, was as tight-lipped and seemingly furious afterward as he has been in years.
After all, before the game had even begun, the table had been set for a big night for the Yankees. The Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers, the two teams the Yankees are chasing for one of the two AL wild-card spots, had both lost. A Yankees win would have leapfrogged them past the Baltimore Orioles and a mere two games behind the leaders. Now, the best they can take away from this lost weekend is that they are "only" three games back, and, as Rodriguez said, "This is nothing that a two- or three-game winning streak can't fix."
Girardi, however, acted as if he knew better. Answering questions with one- and two-word answers and looking like a man whose home had been invaded by cockroaches, it was tough to tell just who the manager was angriest at: his team, or himself, for having made the mistake of believing in it.
Why was Nova so bad?
"Not really sure. Usually, it's a mechanical thing. We were hoping he could give us a little more tonight, but it didn't happen."
Did his troublesome triceps act up again?
"Zero issues. Never mentioned a thing."
What's wrong with A-Rod?
"Right calf, I guess."
Will he be able to play Tuesday?
"I have no idea. No idea."
How did he do it?
"You'll have to ask him."
Didn't he come to you?
"Trainer came to me."
Did Ichiro misread that ball?
"Sure looked like it."
You get the idea. The manager wasn't exactly chatty, and why should he be?
Given the number of injuries his team has had this season, Girardi has done, arguably, the best managing job of his career just to keep his team together this long, let alone still in contention with 12 games left to play.
And on this night, and this weekend, it let him down badly.
Three times the Yankees hit into double plays Sunday night, and two of them came on first-pitch swings by Robinson Cano and Lyle Overbay, veteran hitters who should have known to wait out Clay Buchholz on a night on which he walked three batters in the first four innings, hit another, ran numerous deep counts and even threw a pickoff attempt practically into the box seats behind first base.
It was the kind of raggedy effort turned in by teams playing out the string, not by teams fighting for a playoff spot.
"It doesn't help," Girardi said of his team's sloppy play. "But we have a chance to turn it around on Tuesday. These guys have gotten up off the carpet many times. We're going to have to do it again if we want to play in October. We're going to have to put together a really good streak."
The time for that is running out in a hurry. Last month, Girardi had estimated his team would need to win 93 games to guarantee itself October baseball. But with the Rays and Rangers faltering, Girardi adjusted his estimate downward before the game, saying he thought 90, or even 89 wins might be enough now. With 79 already in the bank and a slew of ostensibly easier games ahead, that seemed like an attainable, if difficult, goal.
Now, it seems like an impossible dream.
The Yankees came to Boston knowing they had a tough assignment ahead of them and vowing to be up to the task.
But it turned out they were playing out of their league all weekend long. Said Rodriguez, "I guess the good news is that we're leaving Boston."
The bad news is, there are still 12 more games to play against other teams, and the way they looked this weekend, the Yankees don't appear capable of winning many of them.
When the Yanks need to be playing their best, they're playing their worst.