Much of the talk before tonight’s series opener with the Baltimore Orioles centered around the Yankees not panicking despite the fact that their lead in the division had been cut down to three games. Players seemed loose in the clubhouse, and Joe Girardi smiled when asked questions about the Yanks’ shrinking cushion in the AL East.
But after the Orioles cut that lead to two games with Friday’s 6-1 win — a game in which the Yankees never really seemed to be in it — a bit of reality seems to be setting in.
“It’s that time of year where we know what’s going on,” Eric Chavez said.
For the most part, the Yankees still chalked this loss up as one of those games, but there’s no denying that they have not been playing well of late. Tonight’s loss is their seventh in their last 10 games, and there’s no doubt that they need to turn things around if they want to hold onto first place.
“I probably said that about two weeks ago,” Girardi said. “When we got swept in Chicago, I said, ‘We need to play better.’ When we lost two out of three to Toronto, I said, ‘We need to play better.’ As I’ve said, there are going to be low points and high points during the season. You’ve got to find a way to get out of this little rut we’re in.”
Girardi is not your typical rah-rah type of manager, but he was asked after the game if he would feel the need to speak with his team if this skid continues.
“If I did,” he said. “Do you think I would tell you?”
• While the Yankees looked lost at the plate for most of tonight’s game, O’s starter Miguel Gonzalez deserves a lot of credit. He was good against the Yankees the last time that he faced them, and he was even better this time around. Traditionally, the Yanks can be caught off guard when they haven’t seen a pitcher before, but they tend to catch up quickly after that. Gonzalez didn’t allow that, giving Baltimore seven shutout innings while striking out nine and allowing only four hits. “The ball was exploding out of his hand,” Chavez said. “The board said 91, 92, but it felt like 95.”
• Aside from a deceptive fastball, there were two things that Gonzalez did very well: He got ahead in counts, and he mixed in his offspeed pitches well. A couple of Yankee hitters said they thought his split-finger was especially nasty tonight. “You’ve got to stay in attack mode against these really good lineups,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “As soon as they feel some anxiety or that you’re picking around the strike zone, it doesn’t bode well for you.”
• As Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda said after the game, “I think it’s pretty similar to my last outing. One mistake pitch too many.” Kuroda gave up some runs early to the Cleveland Indians in his last start before settling down, and that’s pretty much how it went tonight. He gave up a sac fly to Chris Davis and a two-run homer to Mark Reynolds in the second to give the O’s a 3-0 lead before promptly retiring the next nine batters that he faced. That streak was broken when he gave up a solo homer to J.J. Hardy in the top of the sixth.
• Kuroda ended up giving the Yankees 8 1/3 innings while allowing the four runs, and he was asked after the game if it weighs on him when his offense isn’t backing him up. “In order to win, I have to minimize the damage to less than what we can score,” he said. “It’s really tough to face these situations.”
• The Yankees best opportunity to get to Gonzalez came in the bottom of the sixth. Ichiro led off with a single, which was followed by a Jayson Nix walk. That set the table for the most formidable portion of this version of the Yankees lineup, but Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano went down in order. “I’m not an excuse guy,” Swisher said. “Just a bad game for us. We have to put this game behind us, and I can’t wait for tomorrow.”
• Out of all of the Yankees, Swisher had the most forgettable night. For the first time since 2006, he struck out in all four plate appearances. He has had four strikeout games since 2006, but not in a game in which he only came up four times. As reporters asked Swish about Gonzalez after the game, he responded, “I’m not the right guy to ask. I didn’t do too much against him tonight.”
• Before the game, Girardi had talked about some signs that he would look for to see if his team was pressing. He talked about wanting to see guys smiling and enjoying themselves, but he also spoke about looking at their approaches at the plate — if they’re hacking away at bad pitches or seem too anxious. When asked if he had noticed any of those things in tonight’s game, he didn’t seem to think so. “I think the effort’s there,” he said. “It’s really kind of hard to judge if youre going to be satisfied with a guy’s at-bat, because then you’re asking me to get into people’s minds. But I didn’t see guys trying to do too much.”
• Alex Rodriguez went 0 for 3 with a walk and a run scored for Single-A Tampa tonight in his first action in over a month. He grounded out to short in his first at-bat, walked in his second, and then struck out in his final two plate appearances. For more on that, here is a story from Newsday’s Greg Auman. A-Rod could be back as soon as next week, and Girardi was asked if he’s the type of spark that the team needs right now. “You hope he comes back swinging like he did before he got hurt,” he said. “That’s the idea. This is a guy that’s supposed to be an impact player for us, so you hope he makes a big impact.”
• Swisher mentioned A-Rod as a guy that the team looks to for leadership in these situations, along with Jeter. “We look to them for guidance,” he said.
• I’ll give the final word to Showalter, whose team has shaved eight games off of the Yankees’ lead in six weeks: “I’m proud of our players. There will be another challenge. We’re going to sleep quickly. We’ve almost made it to September, what do we have, a couple of hours? I think we all know, it’s a given, what the Yankees are about and what they can do. We have to continue to stay focused on what we have to do and stay in the moment, which our guys have done such a great job with all year.”
Associated Press photos