BOSTON -- For four glorious hours, the New York Yankees held control over the fate of their 2010 season. All they needed to do was beat a lineup that wore the uniforms of the Boston Red Sox but looked more like their Triple-A affiliate from Pawtucket and they could be in position to finally put away those pesky Tampa Bay Rays and claim sole ownership of the AL East title without needing anyone else's help.
But in fact, they turned out to be four lousy hours, four hours of the worst baseball played by the Yankees all year, and in reality, probably among the worst four hours played in any major-league ballpark all season long. Precisely four hours after the first pitch of the second game of a late-and-later doubleheader was delivered by Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Yankees delivered back control of the AL East to the Rays by losing to the Red Sox, 7-6.
Now, after 161 games, $210 million invested, and countless hours spent by Joe Girardi and his staff poring over computer printouts, hitting, fielding and pitching metrics, spray charts and tendency indicators, this is what it comes down to: Dustin Moseley, a journeyman right-hander who was a non-roster invitee in the spring and a mid-season stopgap for the starting rotation when Andy Pettitte got hurt, will take the ball in what will only be the most important Yankees game of the regular season.
And even if he pitches the game of his life, it may not make a difference. If the Rays beat the Kansas City Royals in a game that starts a half-hour after the Yankees-Red Sox game, it is game, set and match for the AL East race.
That is what happens when you give away a game the way the Yankees did, a game that began to look like a loss the moment A.J. Burnett did his best Chuck Knoblauch imitation, standing with his back to home plate arguing with an umpire while a baserunner went from second to home unimpeded.
That incredible, bizarre play, which occurred in the fourth inning, merely cut the Yankees' lead to 4-3. But it was an omen of the way this one would end 2-1/2 hours later when Eric Patterson, a .219 hitter, stroked an 0-1 fastball from Ivan Nova, working his third inning of relief, to drive in Bill Hall with the winning run at 1:22 a.m.
Two innings earlier, Nova had allowed the Red Sox to tie the game by walking Kevin Cash, a .140 hitter with 0 RBI, with the bases loaded after an 11-pitch struggle. Still, that was nothing compared to Burnett's latest public loss of composure.
"It's probably something that shouldn't happen,'' Girardi said of Burnett's misplay. "But I think A.J. was shocked that he wasn't called out. It cost us a run.''
The sloppy loss capped a day in which eight hours and 18 minutes of baseball were played, but no progress was made. In fact, the Yankees backslid. Needing to sweep a doubleheader that the Red Sox appeared to be bending over backward to give them, and wanting to do it quickly and with a minimum of pitching, the Yankees wound up using every reliable arm in their bullpen aside from Moseley's. For Sunday's finale, which will begin 12 hours and 13 minutes after the second game of the doubleheader ended, the only other fresh arms belong to Chad Gaudin, Jonathan Albaladejo and Romulo Sanchez. So get ready for another day of ugly baseball.
''It's good, man,'' Moseley said. "I'm gonna go home and try to get some sleep, and go back out there. I'm gonna take it for what it's worth, go out there and do what I can do, and we'll see. Hopefully, we'll come out on top tomorrow. Uh, today.''
Moseley is an honest workman and a level-headed guy, but there's no way the outcome of the Yankees' season should have come down to this. In some sense, you can blame it on Mother Nature, who chose Friday night to soak Boston with so much rain that there was no choice but to scrub the game and schedule two for Saturday. In another sense, you can blame the Fox network with their ridiculous 4 p.m. Saturday start time, which pushed the second game to an even more ridiculous 9:05 scheduled start, which became 9:22 when the first game went 10 innings.
But in the greatest sense, you have to blame Burnett, who has been unreliable all season and Saturday evening, pitched OK, but not well enough to survive his usual complement of free bases and rock-headed behavior. Burnett's line was ugly: 6 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 1 WP, 2 HBs, 1 HR. He also made a throwing error on the play in which his brain lock allowed a free run to score. He did everything but balk.
And yet, by comparison with his recent performances, it was an improvement. Still, he is not the type any sane manager would trust with a postseason start, although the way the Yankees have played this season may well have taken a toll on Girardi's sanity.
"I thought he pitched OK,'' said Girardi, who has yet to announce his playoff rotation and in fact had not settled on Moseley to pitch Sunday until, well, early Sunday morning when Game 2 finally ended. "I thought I might need him tonight,'' Girardi said.
The nightcap, in which Robinson Cano went three-for-three to wrap a twin bill in which he reached base nine times in 11 plate appearances, ruined a day that had started out so promisingly. Tampa Bay lost its second straight game Friday night, meaning the Yankees needed only to win their final three games against the Red Sox to win the division.
And in the first game, Pettitte, coming off an alarming blowout by the Red Sox last week, after which he confessed to some back stiffness, pitched better and declared himself ready for playoff baseball. Phil Hughes, a key member of the starting rotation all season but his role now in limbo, came out of the bullpen to pitch an overpowering ninth inning, and came away with his 18th win when the Yankees pulled the game out in the 10th.
Then came the nightcap and four errors by the Yankees, including an embarrassing dropped popup behind home plate by Francisco Cervelli, who also made a throwing error on a stolen base that led to a run. "We didn't play a crisp game today,'' Girardi said. "We made some mistakes. It was a long day.''
Now, a weekend the Yankees had hope to use not only as a gateway to first place but also as a way to regain some momentum heading into the postseason has turned into just the opposite, a struggle with a dead team and a continuation of the ragged play that turned them into a sub-.500 team in September.
"I'm proud of how hard our guys played tonight,'' Girardi said. "They played and played and played and never gave up, and that's the bottom line.''
Now that the destiny of the AL East is out of their hands, it will have to be.
The Yankees have one more game to play on Sunday, and after all is said and done, it may turn out to be no more important than the 161 that preceded it.
GAME NOTES: In the first game, seven Yankees pitchers -- Pettitte, David Robertson, Boone Logan, Joba Chamberlain, Kerry Wood, Hughes and Mariano Rivera -- combined for 18 strikeouts, tying the franchise record set by Ron Guidry in June 1978. ... Cano had two doubles to go along with his 29th home run. ... Gardner stole second and third after walking in the eighth, then stole three more bases in the nightcap to run his season total to 47 swipes. He also drew a nine-pitch walk in Game 1 to set up what turned out to be the winning run. ... Wood had 21 consecutive scoreless appearances before allowing an eighth-inning run on three walks and a wild pitch. ... Jonathan Papelbon's record vs. the Yankees this season: 0-3, five saves, two blown saves. ... Things at Fenway were chaotic during the 45 minutes between games, with one sellout crowd trying to leave and another trying to get in, and Girardi frantically running from his office to the clubhouse and back again, trying to determine who on his roster was fit to play the second game. He decided to sit Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher and slot in Mark Teixeira as the DH. In their place, Eduardo Nunez played SS, Austin Kearns played right field and Lance Berkman played first base. ... The Red Sox lineup more closely resembled Triple-A Pawtucket: Eric Patterson at 2B, Felipe Lopez at 3B, Lars Anderson at 1B, Josh Reddick in left field. No David Ortiz, Victor Martinez, Marco Scutaro, Adrian Beltre or Jed Lowrie, though Ortiz and Lowrie both pinch hit later in the game.