NEW YORK -- For nearly 5½ hours at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night, it looked as though manager Joe Girardi was staging his own personal episode of Baseball Survivor, throwing one ill-equipped relief pitcher after another out there, perhaps hoping each would make his job easier by eliminating himself from consideration from the New York Yankees' playoff roster.
And one by one, they did.
Royce Ring, Dustin Moseley, Chad Gaudin and Jonathan Albaladejo came and went in futile relief of A.J. Burnett, who for the second time in his last three starts had his night cut short by a rain delay, this one lasting a whopping two hours and 11 minutes.
But this wasn't a night for test drives or experimentation or on-the-job training. The opponent was the Tampa Bay Rays, the only other horse left in whatever race is still to be run in the AL East, and the game was a chance not only for the Yankees to put 3½ games between themselves and their pursuers, but to put themselves in position for a devastating four-game sweep when CC Sabathia takes the mound for a rematch with David Price in the series finale Thursday night.
But instead of kicking the Rays out of the race, the Yankees dragged them back in. And instead of finding one survivor on that hill out in the middle of the diamond, the Yankees saw only a series of failures.
The Rays won the game 7-2, and by the bitter end, which came at 12:38 a.m., the few diehards left in the ballpark, clearly the antecedents of those who used to fill the Roman Colosseum, were howling for the heads of all four relief pitchers as well as that of the manager.
Where was the effort to ensure the Yankees win this division and bring along the monumental advantage they enjoy when playing at Yankee Stadium -- their record at home is 51-26, among the best in baseball -- into October with them?
The answer, it turned out, was troubling. Robertson spent his afternoon in an MRI tube, doctors trying to determine the source of pain that caused his lower back to lock up after he pitched two-thirds of an inning in Monday night's 8-6 win over the Rays.
"I am a little bit concerned," Girardi said. "But it's muscular, not structural, and that will heal. He's got some spasms he's dealing with but I don't expect him to be out a long time. He's day to day, or maybe two days to two days."
As for the rest of the competent arms in his bullpen, Girardi laughed off the idea of Wood -- "He's my eighth-inning guy, not my third-inning guy" -- and never dealt with the reasons why he chose to use Ring, a September call-up who hadn't pitched in 10 days, and Moseley, a September cast-off who hadn't pitched in nine, or Gaudin, who many in the ballpark obviously felt should never pitch again.
For whatever his reasons, it certainly seemed as though once the skies opened with one out in the bottom of the third, Girardi made the decision to try to cobble together a win with a succession of pitchers who seemed to be holding on to their roster spots by their fingernails.
"That's one thing we can't control, Mother Nature," Girardi said in a remarkable admission. "Well, I guess there's a lot of things we can't control, and that's one of them."
Certainly, the sudden downpour was an unfortunate break for Burnett, who 10 days ago had an outing in Texas cut short by rain after four OK innings of two-run ball. Last night, after a semi-rocky first inning in which he allowed a run on two walks and a sacrifice fly, he appeared to be settling into an effective groove when his night was abruptly abbreviated.
"I guess things happen for a reason, but just as I started to settle down there, the rain started to come," Burnett said. "I went inside to change my shirt and when I came back, that was it. I felt strong, I thought I had a good hook. I was just starting to find it more when the rain came."
A little more than two hours later, it was raining baseballs after Girardi pulled Ring -- who by comparison with what followed him really didn't pitch all that badly -- in favor of Moseley.
Moseley, who for a brief time filled in competently as a starter, allowed a quick run on two hits in the fifth, and then a solo home run to Dan Johnson leading off the sixth.
And still, it got worse. In the seventh, Gaudin allowed monstrous back-to-back homers to Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria with two out. In the eighth, Albaladejo, a lights-out closer this year in Triple-A, walked the first two batters he faced in the eighth to force in another run. Left out to mop up the ninth, Albie gave up one more run on two singles and a walk.
Meanwhile, the Yankees were doing nothing with Tampa Bay's Wade Davis (2 1/3 hitless innings before the rain), Jeremy Hellickson (3 1/3 innings, 2 runs), Randy Choate, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit and Chad Qualls.
Lance Berkman's first homer as a Yankee, off Hellickson in the fifth, was the only offensive highlight of the night.
Now, the Yankees thrust Sabathia into a familiar position, that of having to win in order to avoid allowing the Rays to escape here no worse than when they arrived, a mere half-game out with all of the remaining schedule in their favor.
"We expected this series to be tough," said Berkman, who had two of the Yankees' six hits. "I didn't think we'd sweep the four games from them. I thought if we won three of the four it'd be great, and we're right there. And even if we don't win [Thursday] it's not the end of the world."
That's the kind of thing you expect to hear a ballplayer say after a tough loss. It's not the kind of thing you expect to see from a manager while the game's still in progress.
GAME NOTES: Derek Jeter had two more hits to raise his average to .267, and surpassed Mickey Mantle for most career runs (1,678) when he scored on Alex Rodriguez's single in the sixth. ... Before the game, A-Rod collected a swag bag of two crystal vases and a $10,000 Swiss watch in commemoration of his 600th home run, his 300th stolen base, and just being A-Rod. ... The win by the Rays guarantees them at least a tie in the season series, having won nine of the 17 meetings between the clubs so far this year. ... Both Sabathia (20-6, 3.05) and Price (17-6, 2.79) pitched eight shutout innings 10 ago in Tampa, a game eventually won by the Rays on Brad Hawpe's walk-off homer in the 11th inning off Sergio Mitre. They get to do it all over again Thursday night. First pitch at 7:05 p.m. ET.