CLEVELAND -- Before Monday night, Derek Jeter had missed 18 games with a strained calf. The New York Yankees won 14 of them and, in the process, overtook the Boston Red Sox atop the American League East.
This is not to imply the Yankees don't need their captain, their leadoff hitter and their starting shortstop, but simply to point out that they can win without him.
Now, imagine if it had been Mariano Rivera who missed those 18 games or, more accurately, about six weeks, the closer's equivalent of three weeks of lost time for an everyday player?
What would the Yankees' record be in those games, and where would they be now?
It is not a pleasant thing to ponder, but that is what the Yankees and their fans might be faced with if Rivera's "tender'' right arm turns out to be more than a one-night problem.
The Yankees lost a game they probably should have won Monday night, 6-3 to the Cleveland Indians, and the biggest reason they lost is that Mariano Rivera was not available.
Yes, there were other contributing factors, the biggest of which was a foul pop fly that neither Alex Rodriguez nor Brett Gardner could get a glove on, allowing a threatening seventh inning to mushroom into a disastrous one.
It happened with the Yankees leading 2-0, with two out, a runner on first and Indians third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall at the plate. He popped a 1-0 pitch from A.J. Burnett, who had pitched brilliantly to that point, into no-man's land in foul territory just behind third base. A-Rod gave chase with his back to the plate while Gardner, the fastest man on the team, was coming full speed ahead.
But at the last minute, and with a collision appearing inevitable, Gardner pulled up, A-Rod slowed down and the ball fell harmlessly between them.
In retrospect, it now seems as ominous as the first warnings of icebergs coming into the wire room of the Titanic.
Burnett lost Chisenhall, walking him to give the Indians runners on first and second, and then Yankees castoff Shelley Duncan fought off a 2-2 pitch that dropped in just inside the right-field line for an RBI single.
Still, the Yankees led 2-1. But then another Yankees castoff, Austin Kearns, who was batting .196 with no home runs and just two RBIs, got hold of a 1-0 fastball from Burnett and relocated it to the right-field stands. That gave the Indians a 4-2 lead and, for all intents and purposes, the game.
Curtis Granderson homered in the top of the eighth to cut the lead to 4-3 before a Carlos Santana homer in the bottom of the inning iced the cake. But in truth, the game had been lost in the seventh inning, between the missed pop fly and the misplaced fastball.
Time for the second-guessing to begin.
Burnett had thrown 110 pitches before the home run pitch. Had manager Joe Girardi stayed with his starter too long?
After the game, the truth came out: Burnett had to finish the seventh inning, which he did -- Michael Brantley grounded out to end the inning on Burnett's 115th pitch of the game -- because, as Girardi cryptically put it in the postgame interview, he was "short'' in his bullpen.
As in short one closer.
"Mo's a little tender, so I didn't have him today,'' is how the manager put it.
Asked to define "tender,'' Girardi indicated an area in the back of Rivera's right arm, near the elbow. Asked whether the problem was muscular or, more ominously, in the elbow itself, Girardi said, "To me, it's in the lower tricep, where it inserts into the elbow."
Rivera, for his part, shrugged off the seriousness of the injury. "These are just the little things that happen, guys,'' he said. "Little things happen. Hopefully, I'm all right tomorrow."
But unlike Girardi, who said Rivera's "tenderness'' had arisen only Monday morning, the 41-year-old closer revealed he had felt it Sunday night, after he had blown a save against the New York Mets at Citi Field, and perhaps earlier than that.
"When I'm pitching, I don't feel anything,'' he said. "Just afterward. After I pitched yesterday, there was some soreness there, and today it was still sore. But I'm not concerned about it, I can tell you that. Not concerned at all.''
It's doubtful the Yankees or their fans can honestly say they feel the same way. Losing Rivera is not like losing any other member of the team. As well as David Robertson has gotten the ball to Mo, losing Rivera for any length of time means Robertson becomes the closer. And who gets the ball to him? Cory Wade? Luis Ayala? Boone Logan?
Rivera's absence Monday night did as much to cost the Yankees the game as the botched pop fly. If Rivera had been available, maybe Girardi would have gone right to Robertson as soon as Burnett walked Chisenhall. Maybe the Duncan hit never would have happened, nor the Kearns home run.
And had that popup been caught, the Yankees would have taken a 2-0 lead into the eighth inning, but -- unlike on a normal night, when the plan would have been Robertson pitches the eighth, Mo the ninth -- Girardi would have been scrambling to find the right combination of relievers to get the ball to Robertson.
For one night at least, the manager was truly hamstrung, with no viable alternative to Burnett in the seventh and no Rivera to look forward to in the ninth.
Asked whether he would have managed the final seven outs of the game differently had Rivera been healthy, Girardi said, "Maybe I make a change, yes.''
And asked whether he would have allowed Burnett to pitch to Kearns, who had hit the ball hard off him in flying out in two previous at-bats, Girardi said, "Maybe not.''
But it was a moot point. Mariano Rivera was not available to pitch Monday night, and the dominos fell behind him.
He insists the injury is minor -- right now, the Yankees say no tests are planned -- but Jeter said the same thing three weeks ago and only made it back onto the field Monday night.
Jeter's injury was deflating but ultimately not damaging.
An injury to Mariano, on the other hand, would be devastating.
"Mo's had issues before, and he always seems to bounce back,'' Girardi said. "Mo's had to fight through things to stay around this long; that's what he does. But if it goes on for a few days, then yes, you get a little more concerned.''
Concerned would be putting it mildly. How about terrified?
Yankees' bats start slow, finish stronger
Indians starter Josh Tomlin allowed the first two runners of the game to reach base -- Jeter, on an error by Chisenhall, and Granderson, on a walk -- and then set down the next 18 Yankees before Mark Teixeira broke up the no-hitter with a single to center. Robinson Cano followed with an infield single, and then Nick Swisher doubled to left-center, scoring both to give the Yankees a temporary 2-0 lead. Granderson's home run in the eighth was the final hit for the Yankees, who finished with four.
Jeter went 0-for-4 but lined out hard to shortstop in his final at-bat. He said he felt good and expected to play Tuesday night.
Burnett takes the blame
Burnett pitched well for six innings but was kicking himself in the clubhouse for walking the two batters in the seventh. He said he couldn't even remember the botched pop fly that kept the inning alive. "This one's one me,'' he said. "The two walks killed me.''
Word on the botched popup
Gardner and A-Rod took turns accepting blame for the misplay. Gardner said he called for the ball too late to allow Rodriguez to pull off and then had to pull back himself to avoid a collision. "I wish I could have made a better effort and maybe dove head-first for it or whatever,'' Gardner said. "But if I had done that I would have definitely hit his knees or his shins. But if I could have somehow caught it or he could have somehow caught it, it could have changed the game.''
Rodriguez said, "Bottom line, I gotta catch that ball or get a better jump next time. For A.J. to lose a game in that type of situation, it's not good.''
Said Girardi: "It was a big emotion swing, obviously.''