Commentary

Yankees left searching for answers

Through five innings, Bombers looked poised to break out. Instead, they broke down.

Updated: May 17, 2011, 8:42 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Joe Girardi likened the current state of the New York Yankees to a trip to the dentist's office.

"I know I have to get through it," he said, "But I still dread it every time I go."

By that standard, over the past week Girardi has suffered the equivalent of six consecutive root canals, and the way his team is playing, he will be lucky to have a tooth left in his head by Memorial Day.

For the first five innings of Monday night's game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field, Girardi's Yankees did just about everything a manager could have asked of a team.

They wore out the Rays' ace, David Price, chasing him from the game after five innings with six hits and five runs, three of them coming on another monstrous home run by Curtis Granderson, The Southpaw Slayer, who belted No. 14 in the fifth inning.

Russell Martin
AP Photo/Mike CarlsoThe Yankees surrendered a 5-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth inning, which dropped them to a sixth straight loss.

And their own de facto ace, A.J. Burnett -- he had the best record, 4-2, of anyone on the Yankees' starting staff and his ERA of 3.38 was just a shade more generous than Freddy Garcia's -- had held the Rays to just three hits and one run, a solo home run by Johnny Damon.

If ever it appeared the Yankees were headed for a breakthrough after having lost five straight, including being swept at home over the weekend by the Boston Red Sox, this looked to be that game.

Instead, it turned out to be a breakdown game. After a six-week absence, Bad A.J. turned up uninvited and unexpected at their doorstep. He imploded to surrender five runs in the bottom of the sixth, on six hits, two home runs and two wild pitches. Worst, most of the damage was done with two outs. The Yankees went into the sixth leading 5-1 and came out trailing 6-5.

And once they had fallen behind, even if it was by only one run, once again the Yankees showed about as much fight as Shane Mosley did last week against Manny Pacquiao. They went through the motions but were really no longer in the fight.

So now the skid is at six games, the deficit now three games behind the Rays in the AL East race, and to make things seem even more dire, have given back the commanding headstart they had held over the Boston Red Sox; now, the Yankees, Boston and Toronto Blue Jays are in a three-way tie for second-best in the division.

And if that isn't enough to depress you, consider this: Neither Girardi nor his players seem to have a coherent answer for how to halt the rapid decay of this team.

At least the players had an excuse; most of them -- with the exception of Burnett, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano and Rafael Soriano, who was headed back to New York for an examination by Dr. Chris Ahmad after his bullpen session was cut short by recurring elbow stiffness -- had fled the premises before the clubhouse was opened to reporters.

Girardi, on the other hand, was left with nothing but blind faith.

"This is going to turn," the manager said. "We're going through a really tough stretch, and this is where you're tested as a team and you got to fight through it."

Asked to provide specific reasons for his optimism, Girardi said: "I know the group of guys in there. I know their character, I know their heart, I know their effort. Every team goes through this. And you got to fight to get to the other side."

Very inspirational, but hardly practical.

And besides, the numbers, which have no use for sentiment, tell a very different story. Derek Jeter, who was thought to have had his own breakthrough game eight days ago in Texas, is back down to .255. Alex Rodriguez, who had an MVP spring, is having an MIA season. He went 0-for-4, struck out three times and is hitting .242. Mark Teixeira, who supposedly "kicked" his April habit, has developed a phobia for May. He is hitting .252. Nick Swisher had a hit and raised his average -- a point, to .218. Even Robinson Cano, who fouled a ball off his own left knee that left him hobbling, is mired at .286.

Only Granderson, who hit his seventh home run of the season off a lefty -- the most he had ever hit against lefties was five, in 2008 -- has continued to acquit himself well all season long.

Burnett, too, had taken great strides to distance himself from the reputation he had cemented last season as a pitcher who unraveled at the first hint of trouble over his first eight starts of the season.

But he undid it all in one horrendous inning, surely undermined his manager's growing confidence in him, and turned what looked to be his team's first victory in nearly a week -- they last won on May 10, 3-1 over the Kansas City Royals -- into just another loss.

"It's disappointing," he said. "I let it slip away. I've done good not letting things bother me and, as bad as I was, I didn't let it bother me tonight. I think I've come too far to let one inning pop in my head. But these guys came out and gave me a chance and I let it go."

The sixth started badly for Burnett when Sam Fuld, a .239 hitter with two career home runs in parts of four big league seasons, crushed a 3-1 fastball into the right-field seats with a man aboard to cut the Yankees' lead to 5-3.

He then seemed to settle down, retiring Ben Zobrist and striking out Damon. But then Bad A.J. rang the doorbell and, soon, the house was on fire.

Evan Longoria singled. Burnett bounced a curveball for a wild pitch that, if not for the screen behind home plate, might have bounded into the press box. Longoria went to second. He scored when Matt Joyce singled to make it 5-4.

Then, Burnett threw a very wild pitch, a fastball that missed the glove by two feet, sending Joyce to second. At this point, it may have seemed wise for Girardi to go to his bullpen, since Burnett appeared to be in a full meltdown, for someone else to pitch to B.J. Upton.

But working with a short bullpen, minus Soriano and David Robertson, who had thrown 35 pitches Sunday night, Girardi chose to stick with Burnett, good or bad.

"That's his guy to get out," said Girardi. "He got him out twice before and that's his guy to get out."

But Burnett didn't get Upton out. Instead, Upton took him out, to the left-field seats, and just like that, the Rays had scored more than five runs in a home game for the first time this season after 22 previous tries, a record of home futility topped by only one team in baseball history -- the 1908 Brooklyn Superbas.

"Being a baseball historian, getting the Superbas off our backs is kind of nice," said Joe Maddon, who as the manager of a first-place team could afford to joke.

Girardi, on the other hand, was not in the mood for levity. Nor was Burnett, who was asked if his sixth inning was a flashback to his 2010 season, when such implosions seemed like an every-five-days occurrence.

"Last year's gone, man," Burnett said. "We need to turn the page on last year. If y'all can't tell I'm better this year already then I don't know what else I can do."

He sounded a lot like his manager, and his absent teammates.

They don't seem to know what else to do. But they better figure something out, and fast.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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