David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TORONTO - Alex Rodriguez fiddled with a toothbrush as he spoke, trying to unwrap the packaging while talking about the Yankees' season unraveling even further Tuesday night.
A-Rod's voice was barely audible over the crinkling of the plastic. Standing in the middle of the clubhouse -- instantly quiet after the 2-0 loss to R.A. Dickey and the Blue Jays -- Rodriguez painted a bleak picture for both himself and the Yankees.
What was the use of pretending anymore? Though it's true the tangled web of wild-card contestants is keeping the Yankees in the mix, they can't back their way into the playoffs. And falling flat left them feeling a bit more insecure about their chances. "It's not like we're going to get mulligans for these," Rodriguez said, "so we've got to just make them count."
The count, by the way, is four straight losses for the Yankees, including a weekend beat-down at Fenway and a shutout by the Blue Jays, who have been on autopilot since July.
We're supposed to be getting into the weak part of the schedule here, remember? This is the point where the Yankees, spurred by desperation and a renewed sense of purpose, would make their long-awaited move and slingshot past the Rays, Rangers and Indians.
Instead, the Yankees now find themselves jostling elbow to elbow with a fifth team -- the Royals -- and Joe Girardi's crew is trending in the wrong direction. Speaking of Girardi, there was a hint of resignation in the manager's voice after this loss. The Yankees were fresh from a day off in Toronto, a badly needed breather in Girardi's eyes, and he had clung to that as a cure-all for his team's Fenway malaise.
But his players didn't follow the script. First, Austin Romine had to be scratched for lingering concussion symptoms, and Rodriguez -- a game-time decision with calf and hamstring issues -- would have hurt the Yankees less on the bench.
A-Rod went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts, and also stranded two in the second inning. He did come up in the eighth with a chance to tie the score on one swing, but took a 96-mph fastball for strike three.
Before the game, Girardi suggested that Rodriguez was pretty much done playing third base for the rest of the season. Afterward, Rodriguez didn't argue with his manager's assessment. Wearing an ice pack around his right calf, A-Rod didn't downplay the injury.
"I mean, at this point," Rodriguez said, "I'm only just thinking about getting in the lineup."
It wasn't until after batting practice Tuesday that Rodriguez gave Girardi the green light to play him. But he still wasn't moving very well, and occasionally looked like he was limping. As A-Rod prepped to test his aching right calf and tight left hamstring, Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" could be heard booming from his headphones, loud enough for anyone within a 10-foot radius to hear. When Vernon Wells made a crack about his musical taste, A-Rod said, "Showing my age, bro."
That's for sure. At 38, A-Rod -- like the Yankees' playoff chances -- could use the Bon Jovi track as his theme song. And with 11 games left, Girardi is coming to the realization that his club may need divine intervention, just as Robinson Cano suggested Sunday when he just about guaranteed the Yankees making the playoffs because "God has a plan for Mo."
Girardi now is facing the "must-win" question on a daily basis, and it's not something he can shrug off. "We can't lose," Girardi said. Then, after a short pause, backed off by adding, "Much more."
But the Yankees can lose. They've shown themselves all-too-capable of that. And regardless of whatever help they've been getting from the rest of the wild-card weaklings, the schedule doesn't quite seem so friendly. Not after Tuesday night. "I think anything's possible," Rodriguez said. "But we've got to get going. We're running out of time."