Prior to the 9-8, extra-inning defeat, the Bombers had been on a thrilling hot streak. They swept the previous series against the Chicago White Sox, and over a larger sample, posted an 18-8 record dating back to Aug. 9.
Despite Boston's all-around superiority this season, there was reason for optimism leading up to the opener of this four-game set. The Yankees had Ivan Nova, the American League Pitcher of the Month for August, taking the mound. The 26-year-old right-hander had contributed quality starts in nine of his past 10 opportunities dating back to beginning of July, lowering his overall earned run average to a rotation-best 2.88.
Unfortunately, Nova's sinker fell flat in front of the home crowd. He induced only four ground balls (against 10 fly balls) and struggled to generate swings-and-misses when ahead in the count. His pitch count soared as a result, and after four shaky innings, Yankees manager Joe Girardi reached into his bullpen.
New York didn't quit, even as the deficit swelled during the middle innings. A six-run rally in the seventh put the Yanks ahead, 8-7, and Girardi must have felt confident calling upon Mariano Rivera to seal the victory.
Of course, if this rivalry has taught us anything throughout its illustrious history, it's that nothing comes easily.
A broken bat single by Mike Napoli kept the Red Sox alive with two outs in the ninth. Stephen Drew followed with a soft liner to drive home pinch-runner Quintin Berry. The visitors went ahead in the next frame against Joba Chamberlain, and untouchable Koji Uehara shut the door.
Here's a visual of the uphill battle that the Yankees face with 22 games remaining:
|Boston Red Sox||85-57||—|
|Tampa Bay Rays||77-62||6.5|
|New York Yankees||75-65||9|
|Toronto Blue Jays||64-76||20|
|Tampa Bay Rays||77-62||—|
|New York Yankees||75-65||2.5|
|Kansas City Royals||73-67||4.5|
Although the division title is essentially out of reach, excellence during these final few weeks—think 17-5 or 16-6—would allow them to leapfrog either the A's or Rays and fend off the other Wild Card contenders for October acceptance.
However, that's just not realistic with New York's current personnel.
Nova has carried the starting rotation recently, providing lengthy and effective outings. The same can't be said of CC Sabathia, the longtime ace who has only lasted seven-plus innings in about half of his performances this summer. Moreover, the fifth spot just passed from Phil Hughes to David Huff, a midseason call-up from Triple-A with no experience starting contests under pennant-race pressure.
On the offensive side of things, Derek Jeter and Chris Stewart are mired in brutal slumps. For the season, New York's captain owns a .200/.297/.273 batting line, while Stewart is completely hitless in his past eight games.
When Jeter isn't contributing at the plate, his defensive awfulness gets magnified. The aforementioned Napoli single, for example, that extended Boston's ninth-inning rally on Thursday would have been playable for a reasonably athletic shortstop.
Derek Jeter reminds me of Charles Barkley in Space Jam after the monsters stole his talent.... Dude bats .200 with no glove. Hang it up— Tyler Mitchell (@BigRed2832) September 6, 2013
Another somewhat overlooked flaw on this roster is its lack of bullpen depth. Yes, Mariano Rivera and David Robertson dominate in most of their appearances, but who else can genuinely be trusted? Preston Claiborne and Shawn Kelley haven't been competent since the All-Star break, while Chamberlain is now several years removed from adequacy.
With the exception of a few lefty specialists, Girardi has annually avoided leaning on particular relievers for too many appearances. Continuing to partition the workload evenly could doom his team in must-win matchups down the stretch.
The Yankees have performed well over the past month with a mishmash of homegrown stars—like Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, David Robertson and Nova—and reputable has-beens.
From this point forward, with only two off-days left and the majority of their schedule on the road, they'll need to muster the strength to shift into an even higher gear. Baseball Prospectus gives them 10.1 percent odds of reaching the postseason; ESPN shares that skepticism with their 15.0 percent estimate.
The fat lady isn't singing yet, but she's on standby in case veteran southpaw Andy Pettitte fails to stop the bleeding in the Bronx on Friday.