The race for the second American League wild-card berth has been a slog of the mediocre. Teams get hot, then fade, but never really fade away. At the start of play on Wednesday, six teams clustered on the edge of that spot, like a pack of wounded and wailing dogs just outside the playoff door.
For months, the Yankees have tuned out the noise. But the incessant scratching is growing louder, and the Yankees cannot escape it. They have not clambered up the stairs to a loftier perch in the standings. Maybe such a journey is beyond them.
After falling twice to the Cleveland Indians in the Bronx on Wednesday, the Yankees are 70-62, losing their grip on the top spot and the chance to host the wild card game for the second time in three years.
Since June 13 — for more than 11 weeks, that is — their record is 32-39. As the Boston Red Sox arrive for a four-game weekend series starting Thursday, the Yankees still must prove they are up for the fight.
“The calendar’s gonna flip to a new month here pretty soon, and we’re running out of time to catch those guys,” outfielder Brett Gardner said. “So obviously, we’ve got a big series coming up.”
“I’m not gonna downplay the magnitude of this series,” Girardi said. “I’m not going to. It’s a really important series for us.”
True enough, but only in a last-chance kind of way. The Yankees are much closer to the gang behind them than to the Red Sox above them, which means next week’s series in Baltimore could matter more. The Orioles (68-65) have won seven games in a row and finally have their best hitter (Manny Machado) and elite closer (Zach Britton) healthy and performing well.
The Minnesota Twins own the second wild card now, and the Yankees host them Sept. 18 to 20, right after another series with the Orioles. Who knows how the standings will look then, but the Los Angeles Angels, the Kansas City Royals, the Texas Rangers, the Seattle Mariners and the Tampa Bay Rays also have hope.
“We’re in charge of our own destiny, and we have to win games,” Girardi said. “But it’s impossible not to look at the scoreboard. It’s right there. I’d have to really have my head in the sand not to see the scores of games. But we have to worry about ourselves.”
The Yankees had not been swept at home all season, though there is no shame in losing to Cleveland. As the Indians defend their A.L. crown, they are a season-high 20 games above .500, even with five important players on the disabled list: outfielders Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall, second baseman Jason Kipnis, starter Danny Salazar and the relief ace Andrew Miller.
Yet the Yankees could hardly muster a fight on Wednesday. In the opener, they got four walks, a wild pitch and a hit batter from Indians starter Trevor Bauer, but managed just one run. They looked helpless against Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen, who baited Aaron Judge — in a pinch-hitting role — with five curveballs before blowing a high fastball past him to end the game.
So has Judge’s disappearance in the second half. He started the second game of the doubleheader — his first start of the series — but could not do much to prevent a 9-4 thrashing. He reached on an infield single and scored, then struck out, walked and flied to right.
“If I’m swinging at the right pitches, taking my walks, I feel like I’m in a good place to hit,” said Judge, who has refused to blame an unspecified shoulder injury for his slump. “Gotta just build off that and take it into tomorrow.”
Judge is hitting .181 since the All-Star Game, roughly the same average of his confounding cameo at the end of last season, when his tantalizing power was often hidden under an avalanche of strikeouts.
By spending the first half of this season as the best hitter in the A.L., Judge carried the Yankees. Now he is lost again, like Matt Holliday, whose second half has produced a .136 average, one home run and one lingering back injury. The Yankees also missed Starlin Castro for most of two months until he returned from a hamstring strain last week.
“If you’re gonna rely on one or two guys during the course of the whole season,” Girardi said, “you’re gonna be in trouble, probably.”
The Yankees have a sturdy enough rotation, with C. C. Sabathia, Sonny Gray, Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino lined up against the Red Sox this weekend. General Manager Brian Cashman, meanwhile, is in Japan to scout Shohei Otani, a two-way sensation who could arrive in the majors next season.
The pursuit of Otani, 23, fits with the long-term vision Cashman explained last summer after trading Miller for prospects. The goal, he said, was not to simply prop up a roster in hope of squeezing into the playoffs.
“The one thing the Yankees have always stood for, and do stand for, is the effort to try to become a superteam,” Cashman said.
They were never going to achieve that in one season, despite the giddy illusion of April and May. The Yankees are on the right path, but building and sustaining a superteam takes patience, and the Yankees are not there yet. Even a sweep this weekend would leave them behind Boston.
Of course, the Yankees might still have their wild-card spot by the end of the series — but then again, they might not. They have time to pull away from the middle, but for now, the middle is where they belong. That is what their summer has revealed.