Monday, August 11, 2008

A question of two turning points

The turning point in the Yankees season occurred this weekend in Anaheim. Actually, there were two potential directions. Now we just have to wait to see which path the Yanks follow the rest of the season.

Turning point 'A' is the road Yankees fans don't want to walk down. It happened over two innings on Saturday. Dan Giese had just delivered a clutch performance, holding the Angels to one run over six innings. The gagging Yanks offense had failed in several opportunities to break the game open, but the team still took a 3-1 lead into the seventh frame. Enter Jose Veras, a bullpen savior in '08, but not on this day. He serves up a pair of solo homers to knot the game.

In the bottom of the eighth, Edwar Ramirez enters and proceeded to once again display his vast limitations. Five batters face, five batters reached. After a similarly overmatched Dave Robertson was tattooed for four more hits, the Angels had scored eight runs, turning a nail-biter into a laugher.

It was a brutal loss, one that drove the usually calm Joe Girardi to snap at a local reporter following the game. It's the type of game that some teams don't bounce back from. And it remains to be seen if it does in this Yankees unit.

Turning point 'B' takes place a day after Saturday's painful bullpen meltdown. Andy Pettitte turns in an uneven but ultimately effective performance, allowing three runs on 10 hits over seven-plus innings. The offense continues its enfuriating decline, putting a runner on third base with less than two outs seven times and only scoring three runs. The Yanks were 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position Sunday and are 12-for-59 (.203) on the road trip. Johnny Damon choked in a huge one-out spot in the seventh, striking out with new center fielder (?) Justin Christian leading off third base. A-Rod provided further frustration an inning later, doubling to lead off the eighth before getting thrown out trying to steal third with the red-hot Xavier Nady at the plate. Aggressive, sure. But smart? Absolutely not.

At that point, it became one of those games where you know you're going to lose, it's just a matter of when the ax is going to fall. Naturally, it happened in the most excruciating way possible, kind of how I picture the Jets would lose an important game if they played baseball. Chone Figgins hit what Girardi would later describe as a "10 hopper" through the Yankees infield in the ninth to plate the game-winning run. Wilson Betemit's all-around terrible-ness messed the play up when he incorrectly made the decision to turn and cover first, but how is Robbie Cano not laying out there to keep the ball from reaching the outfield? I'm not going to say it was a lack of effort, but it was certainly a lack of awareness by the team's biggest dog.

In this scenario, the Yanks hit rock bottom. It's the moment in the season where the reality of the situation finally clicked and the team turns it around. A similar situation happened in A-Rod's first game back from the DL on May 20, when the Yanks were bombed out at home by the Orioles. Perceived at the time as the low point for the team, they went 8-2 to close the month.

We now know where rock bottom truly is. And Girardi can use that as a rallying call to his team. It's now or never, because as Yogi once said, it's getting late early.

Lose two-of-three or get swept by the Twins this week and you limp home to New York with your season on life support. With just 44 games left and 63 wins to their credit, the Yanks will need to go 30-14 or very close to that to finish the season in the money. With the majority of their games on the road, this is going to be a big challenge, the biggest this team has faced in the regular season since their equally difficult run to the Wild Card in 1995.

The division is most likely gone, an 8 1/2 game divide separating the Yanks from the stunning Rays. But the Sox are vulnerable, and only four games separate the two rivals in the AL Wild Card standings. Take two from the Twins and then hammer the Royals at the Stadium this weekend and everyone -- this blogger included -- will be breathing a whole lot easier.

Thirty wins to October. But let's start with two in Minnesota ... for the love of God, please.

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