- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees say they don't care about winning the AL East, and it's just as well, because if their season had ended Friday night, they would have finished up a second-place team.
The Yankees got laid out, waxed, flattened -- choose your favorite adverb of mass destruction -- 10-8 by the Boston Red Sox on Friday night at Yankee Stadium in a game not nearly as close as the final score. Meanwhile, 1,200 miles south, the Tampa Bay Rays were beating the Seattle Mariners 5-3 to regain first place in the American League East.
The Yanks still need only any combination of wins and Red Sox losses adding up to three to clinch a playoff spot, but their hopes of winning the division and securing the substantial edge of home-field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs grow dimmer by the day.
A "formality" that was expected to be wrapped up this weekend now might have to wait for sometime next week, and games played in a foreign country, considering that Saturday the Yankees are sending rookie Ivan Nova against Jon Lester and -- wait, it gets worse -- skipping Phil Hughes on Sunday in favor of Dustin Moseley, who will be asked to match up with Daisuke Matsuzaka.
"We've still got the division in our sights," Joe Girardi said. "But we've still got to start mapping things out. Let's just get through this weekend, and maybe we can plan some more."
As "The Boss" liked to say, "You better be right, pal," and you know that right about now, he would be saying precisely that to Girardi, Brian Cashman, Dave Eiland and whoever else came up with the idea that young pitchers should be treated not like young pitchers but like glass -- easily shattered.
Clearly, the Yankees are going all-in for October and maybe forgetting about the rest of September in the process. It is a heck of a gamble and one that, if it backfires, would have caused heads to roll in a previous era. This year, it might cost Girardi a contract extension.
For the past few weeks, Girardi has taken turns resting his aging core in the hopes of getting those players healthy for the postseason, and that is fine. It's a lot easier to replace a first baseman for the day, or a shortstop or a right fielder.
When it comes to starting pitching, especially considering the periodic unreliability of the Yankees' bullpen, that is another matter. This week, they have lost badly with their top three starters on the mound -- A.J. Burnett on Wednesday, CC Sabathia on Thursday and Andy Pettitte on Friday.
"It's somewhat concerning," Girardi said of Pettitte's 3 1/3-inning, 10-hit, seven-run outing that raised his ERA nearly a half-run, from 2.81 to 3.17. "It wasn't what we wanted to see, but I believe in Andy and I believe he'll come back and be very good."
But Girardi is not committing to the next time Pettitte or any of his other veterans will start. "Nothing is etched in stone beyond this weekend," he said.
In the meantime, the Yankees leave it to a kid, Nova, and a retread, Moseley, to pull them out of a tailspin that threatens to undo all the fine work they did over the first 151 games of the season.
Realistically, there is almost no chance they could blow their playoff spot. With eight games left, they hold a six-game lead over the Red Sox and would have to pull a collapse of Mets-like proportions to wind up out of October baseball.
And there is a precedent for Yankees teams stumbling through September, staggering into the playoffs and regrouping in time to win it all in October. In 1999, they lost five of their last nine games to close the season and then went 11-1 in the playoffs, including a World Series sweep of the Atlanta Braves. In 2000, they lost seven of their last nine and won 11 of 16 playoff games, including beating the Mets in five games in the World Series.
But in those seasons, they had healthy leads when they began their swoons and held on through the finish line. They weren't in a wire-to-wire sprint with a team as resilient as the Rays, and most importantly, many of their key players weren't in their late 30s or -- in the case of Mariano Rivera -- 40.
And this history-conscious franchise holds one record the Yankees prefer not to talk about -- as a wild-card team, they have never won a playoff series.
If they head into this October as the wild card, there is a good chance they will keep that dubious record intact. Their prospective wild-card opponent, the Minnesota Twins, are tied with Tampa for the best record in the AL and their record at Target Field, their new home, is even better than the Yankees' record at Yankee Stadium.
Starting the playoffs as a wild card means not only does ace Sabathia probably have to win both of his starts, he has to win them both on the road. It means they have to rely on either the unreliable (Burnett), the recently reactivated (Pettitte) or the overly rested (Hughes) to get that third win, and because of the limitations on Hughes, he will have gone 10 days without pitching by the time his turn comes up.
The Yankees made a stirring attempt to come back Friday, having fallen behind 10-1 after five innings and then hitting four home runs in the sixth and seventh innings to close the gap to 10-7. They added one more on a homer by Mark Teixeira in the ninth. Incredibly, they brought the tying run to the plate with two out, but Robinson Cano struck out to end the game.
It was a reminder of how explosive an offensive club they can be and how much more powerful they are at home -- they now have hit 111 of their 192 home runs in Yankee Stadium. And another example of, given the last at-bat, how they can make just about any game a nail-biter.
"We still got a long way to go," Teixeira said. "I hope we're going to be playing for another five, six weeks."
But the way things are going, odds are they will be playing most of those games on the road. And if anyone tells you it doesn't matter whether the Yankees win the division or settle for the wild card, whether they start October at home or in Minnesota, or whether the starting pitcher Sunday is Phil Hughes or Dustin Moseley, don't scream, cry, scratch your head or tear out your hair.
Just quote George Steinbrenner: You better be right, pal.
GAME NOTES: After making a successful return to the rotation Sunday in Baltimore, Pettitte got shelled for seven runs in 3 1/3 innings, allowing a three-run home run to Jed Lowrie in the second inning. ... The Yankees hit six homers in all, including two by Alex Rodriguez, who took over sole possession of sixth place on the all-time HR list with 610, one more than Sammy Sosa. Mark Teixeira also hit two homers, the second a solo shot with two out in the ninth off Jonathan Papelbon, to give him 32 for the season. Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher also homered. ... The last time the Yankees hit six home runs and lost was a game against the Mets on July 10, 1999, at Shea Stadium, when Paul O'Neill and Jorge Posada hit two each and Chuck Knoblauch and Ricky Ledee also homered, only to lose 9-8 on Matt Franco's two-run single with two out in the bottom of the ninth off Mariano Rivera. ... Saturday's matchup: Nova (1-0, 4.11) versus Lester (18-8, 3.06), first pitch at 4:10 p.m. ET.
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com