Make that a slippage to the point where the Baltimore Orioles—yes, those Baltimore Orioles—are one game behind the Empire Emeritus. In the American League East standings. The Orioles helped themselves there Monday by shutting out Toronto, but the Yankees held the door for them falling to Tampa Bay, 4-3, when Robinson Cano faltered in the bottom of the eighth on maybe the key play of the game.
And it’s no ordinary faltering if Cano wasn’t kidding about a barking hip as he went for the play and he, too, goes down on sick leave.
Chris Gimenez, the batter in question with a man on second and the game tied at three, didn’t exactly shoot the grounder like a torpedo along the top of the Tropicana Field rug. The journeyman Gimenez came back up from the minors Saturday and carried a .203 major league average this year into Monday’s game. Not exactly a stick to strike fear into a Yankee heart even if he did swat home a run with a single off CC Sabathia in the Tampa Bay second.
Now, Cano shaded toward the pad with Gimenez batting righthanded, and the Rays’ rook cued it toward the hole. It’s a ball to which Cano normally gets, by trot or dive. Not this time. The ball danced under Cano’s downstretched glove and into the outfield. It rolled slow enough for Ryan Roberts, the man on second, to cross the plate like a commuter barreling his way to catch the downtown express the minute the doors begin closing. Except that now the doors may be closing on the Yankees’ postseason possibilities.
“I had it there,” Cano told reporters after it was over. “It was just my left foot just came up, and I just felt my left hip a little bit. 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. It’s just tight right now. Hopefully nothing bad or anything. Let’s see how it feels tomorrow.”
If Cano’s split more than his infinitives, the Yankees are the next best thing to dead ducks.
He looked suspect enough in the top of the same inning, when he couldn’t break out of the box in customary fashion when he hit a liner Tampa Bay third baseman Kelly Johnson couldn’t handle. He dropped and fumbled the ball like a tight end surrounded tighter by barreling defencive backs, then threw way off line toward first base. And he still beat Cano thanks to the Yankee second baseman’s rickety start out of the box.
On 18 July, the Empire Emeritus had a ten-game AL East lead. Eleven days later, the lead remained 7.5. Coming into Tampa Bay after dropping two of three to the Orioles in New York, the Yankee lead was down to a pair. Now it’s a game. And their coming schedule has about a 50-50 chance of allowing them breathing room. Following this week-opening set with the Rays, they get to play the Orioles again in Baltimore. And this year’s Orioles don’t know the meaning of the word “quit.”
By the time they leave Baltimore for a three-set with what’s left of the Red Sox in Fenway Park, the Yankees might discover that even slapping the Red Sox silly in three straight won’t help them much. On paper the Orioles have the tougher immediate schedule—two more with the Blue Jays, that four-set hosting the Yankees, then a showdown with the Rays, and a weekend in Oakland against an equally surprising collection of Athletics, who just might be the hottest team in baseball at this moment and could keep that status by that weekend. (Their upcoming schedule is no siesta, but they don’t exactly seem worried, either.)
But these Orioles are made of hardier stuff. The Yankees have been done in by injuries and too many lineups filled with scrubs and utilities, not to mention a pitching staff that’s beginning to show age and vulnerabilities up and down. The Orioles took two of three from the Yankees as July turned to August. Since then, they’re 20-9, and the Yankees are 15-15. They rode a castoff named Joe Saunders (cast off by the Arizona Diamondbacks a couple of weeks ago; once cast off by the Los Angeles Angels in a deal for Dan Haren) and three bullpen bulls to a three-hit shutout Monday, and they’re closer to the Yankees in the East than anyone’s been since June.
What if if the beginning of the end for these Yankees truly might come off a journeyman .203 hitter, toward the turn of a hip on a ground ball slip?
The Yankees aren’t used to losing pennants or being denied chances for them thanks to surrealities beyond their control. It’ll take just as long for Yankee-watchers and Yankee-haters alike to think of anything like that striking them down. Imagine that. The Yankees and their minions experiencing life according to the pre-2004 Red Sox.