David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
With the Yankees' season on the brink, Carlos Beltran was a spectator for Wednesday night's 5-2 loss to the Astros, the team's seventh defeat in nine games. If this slide isn't a free fall yet, it has all the makings of one, and Beltran knows what that feels like.
Back in 2007, Beltran was a member of the ill-fated Mets' team that blew a seven-game lead with 17 to play and missed the playoffs. They went 5-12 during that spiral, losing in every way imaginable. That September, Beltran batted .282 with eight homers and 27 RBIs in 28 games, the sort of torrid streak he's been known for, but it wasn't enough to save the Mets.
Now it's the Yankees who need rescuing, and all these years later, Beltran doesn't seem capable of providing much help. Before Wednesday's bullpen meltdown, and another pitiful offensive performance, Beltran received his third, and likely final cortisone shot of this season for the bone spur in his elbow.
Beltran woke up that morning with more pain than usual, and the doctor later told him it was probably because the previous injection had worn off. So after this shot, he has to wait until Friday to play -- at the earliest. And with the Yankees already trailing the Tigers by five games for the second wild card, is that going to be too late?
"Anything can happen in baseball," Beltran said. "I've seen a lot."
We're not seeing any evidence the Yankees can rally for a playoff berth. But if they are going to make one last-ditch effort, Beltran has to be in the lineup, and there's no guarantee he'll stick even when he does return from this latest episode.
As optimistic as he tried to sound after Wednesday's loss, this is not Beltran's first rodeo. At age 37, he's waited nearly two decades for a World Series ring. At this point, Beltran is watching the same games we are -- and he can't be thinking much differently than us about the Yankees' chances.
"I know everyone is battling right now," Beltran said. "But at the end of the day, things are just not working. It's frustrating."
In the Yankees' previous eight games, they had averaged 2.5 runs. On Wednesday night, they scored two, a trend not likely to be reversed as long as Beltran is out of the lineup.
Then again, it's not like the Yankees have had many answers lately. So far, Girardi has resisted the Billy Martin trick of pulling names out of a hat to cobble together a lineup. Too bad. But that's not in Girardi's DNA, and as long as Derek Jeter is healthy, the No. 2 spot is untouchable.
So what does a Beltran-less attack look like these days? The Yankees were forced to use Jeter (.637 OPS) as their DH with Stephen Drew (.170 BA) at shortstop and Ichiro Suzuki back in rightfield, where Martin Prado originally was penciled in to start before the Beltran injury. Prado wound up at second base instead.
We know the Astros aren't the A's or Orioles. But facing them without Beltran was increasing the level of difficulty for a Yankees' team playing with virtually zero margin for error. In Beltran's absence, the Yankees earned points for creativity. They manufactured a 2-1 lead in a way we're not accustomed to seeing at this hitter-friendly ballpark: Ichiro dashing in from third when Jacoby Ellsbury bunted for a two-out single.
Beltran is tied for third on the Yankees with 14 homers -- behind Mark Teixeira (20) and Brett Gardner (15) -- and his .416 slugging percentage ranked fourth. Not one of the most intimidating bats in the AL, but technically still a run producer on a team with too few. Beltran always has the potential to do damage. But after a 1-for-18 road trip, followed by an elbow flare-up, the Yankees are left wondering if he can provide the requisite pop upon his return.
The Yankees blew leads of 1-0 and 2-1 Wednesday night -- an offensive explosion by their standards.
The Yankees' pitching staff had been the savior to this point in the season, but with little help from this punchless lineup, everything seems to be coming apart now.A healthy Beltran would help. Or maybe just delay what feels inevitable.