- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- The way they dove to snag ground-ball smashes and sprinted from gap to gap all night long to take away base hits, the way they batted around in the second inning and pitched no-hit ball through four innings, they looked ready for a showdown against the Boston Red Sox starting Friday night at Yankee Stadium, all right.
Too bad the Kansas City Royals had to leave town after trouncing the sloppy New York Yankees so comprehensively Thursday night -- this less than 24 hours after they paper-cut the Yankees to death during an extra-inning marathon in which the Royals managed only four hits, not counting the frightening beaning of Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano.
It's been as though the Royals and Yankees reversed roles in the past two days. Even the Yankees admit it's been hard to watch.
"What was that, a 4½-hour game?" Yankees manager Joe Girardi asked before Thursday's rematch. "It felt longer."
The fact that Cano was only temporarily rattled but otherwise fine and back at second base for all nine innings Thursday night was about the Yankees' only bright spot in their second straight loss to the Royals, this one an 11-5 clunker.
The mistake-filled defeat not only dropped the Yankees a game behind first-place Tampa Bay in the AL East -- it also left them with the same number of wins (20) as the Royals, long one of baseball's perennial doormats and a team with a payroll only one-fifth of what the Yankees shell out.
The Yankees like to say that having a 20-15 record and hovering around first place in the AL East aren't bad places to be sitting. But it's also true that games like the Yankees' past two (or eight or 10 ... ) make you think at some point the Yankees are going to have to drop their nonchalance about how they're winning and quit acting like worrying about style points are beneath them.
Style matters, all right.
Even Girardi admitted as much after watching the Yankees bumble along to their sixth loss in 11 games. Too many of those defeats resembled nights like this.
"We spotted them too many runs. ... Just bad baseball," Girardi said. He was calm as he spoke, and it took a few questions to pull it out of him, but once he started his critique the opinions Girardi gave were about as negative as he publicly allows himself to get.
"When we have one sloppy game, I don't like it, so when you have three, four, five in a couple weeks, yeah, it bothers me," Girardi said. "You can't give teams extra outs."
The sight of Boston coming to town is always a natural time to take a little inventory of where the Yankees are. With just 35 games gone in this season, it's still hard to know what sort of team the Yankees want to be -- let alone what they're going to be.
Are the Yankees content to be a slugging team, or can they push themselves to be something more complete? So far things have felt backward: their patchwork starting pitching staff and deep bullpen have unexpectedly carried them more than their hot-and-cold bats.
Nobody with any pretensions of contending wants to strand 2-of-16 runners, as the Yankees did Wednesday, or throw the ball all around the yard before finally snapping to attention in the fifth inning as they did Thursday. That was too late.
When you're a team with World Series ambitions, it's not too much to insist daily on playing smart, or playing good situational baseball, or buckling down when someone else in the lineup makes mistakes -- something the Yankees' young starter, Ivan Nova, wasn't able to do in the game-deciding second when one blown play followed another.
Francisco Cervelli, who started at catcher in place of Russell Martin, gave up a passed ball with two on, and later heaved the ball into center field while ill-advisedly trying to pick off Melky Cabrera at second, though there was a runner at third. That allowed one run to score. Cano also prolonged the inning by blowing a potential double-play ball with a bad throw that pulled Edwin Nunez off the bag at second, and the Royals scored two more runs. In between all that, Nova had a simple explanation for what else happened: "I got hit today. They hit me."
The Royals had 16 hits, all told, against three Yankees pitchers.
Nunez was only in the lineup because Girardi was gearing up for the Red Sox series by penciling Derek Jeter in as his designated hitter and sitting down the struggling Jorge Posada. He started Cervelli because Martin caught every inning of the marathon loss the night before. And both moves made sense.
But losing this sloppily for this long is something Girardi was right to grouse about. There's a fine line between that old cliché of not getting too high or too low and being so cocksure you're going to pull out of it, you don't do the little or self-sacrificing things like hitting a ball to the right side to move a runner over. There's a danger in always telling yourself victory is always just a three-run homer away rather than scratching and cobbling together runs. As the Yankees have already seen, some nights the long ball never comes. And even when it does, it still may not be enough when you don't do the other things that win games.
The best teams can usually beat you any way they need to. The Yankees still haven't shown us their best yet. Just flashes of it. The hitters who aren't tearing it up -- Alex Rodriguez, Posada, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher Brett Gardner and, to a lessening degree, Jeter -- easily outnumber the regulars who are hitting.
"Maybe we need the Red Sox to come in now, and that way everything gets turned up," Girardi said.
There's another option, you know, and Girardi conceded as much while admitting style matters. The Yankees could -- and should -- turn up the heat on themselves.
The bumbling Bombers could -- and should -- turn up the heat on themselves.