David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BALTIMORE - Playing the Yankees didn't worry Buck Showalter all that much before Monday night's series opener. The Orioles manager sounded more concerned about something he didn't really understand, the ALS charity phenomenon known as the "Ice Bucket Challenge."
Adam Jones had nominated Showalter to be next, along with President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. But Showalter wasn't too clear on the concept, and as he walked out for batting practice, eyes darting side to side, he wondered aloud if someone was about to douse him with a Gatorade cooler in the hallway.
These are nervous times in the AL East, as the division's last three standing -- the Orioles, Blue Jays and Yankees -- fret over problems that haven't even shown their faces yet. It's the nature of baseball's long season, and for everything that has happened to the Yankees, from players lost or now upgraded, the greatest fear in mid-August is that of the unknown.
"Forty-five games is an eternity," Showalter said of the remaining schedule. "These days inch by. All our curiosity is going to be satisfied at some point. It would be a lot more enjoyable if you knew how it was going to turn out."
Some might suggest the Yankees are finished in the AL East. They trail the first-place Orioles by seven games, and seemed fortunate to be staying that close, given their sputtering offense and a patched-up rotation pitching over its collective heads.
But the momentum can turn quickly during these final six weeks. Crazy things happen. Bad things. And the Orioles got a heaping spoonful of awful luck in the third inning when Manny Machado suddenly collapsed after splintering his bat on a grounder to short.
Machado's right leg folded up without him taking a step, and he rolled over on his back, lying across the plate while clutching his right knee. Machado was helped off the field, one arm draped over Showalter's shoulder, and the Orioles later described his injury as a sprained knee with a further evaluation scheduled for Tuesday.
The Orioles already are missing shortstop J.J. Hardy, who has been sidelined with a left thumb sprain, and sitting Machado for any length of time would be multiplying the degree of difficulty as Baltimore tries to stay atop the division. With nine more games against the Yankees, and two more this week, that's a brutal punch to the gut.
"There's still a ton of baseball that has to be played," Joe Girardi said. "I always find it interesting how the feeling about a club can change from one day to the next or one week to the next."
Or even between innings, as the shocking Machado injury proved. The Yankees, on the other hand, have been making plenty of their own roster adjustments on the fly -- "mixing and matching," as Brian Cashman calls it -- with decent success. Cashman's flurry of July trades improved the lineup at three positions while also adding a starter in Brandon McCarthy, who has pitched like a No. 1.
Showalter got his start with the Yankees and still is beloved in the Bronx for helping to guide them back to respectability. But now, in watching their moves from afar, Showalter sees them through orange-tinted glasses. "It's like a hockey line change, wasn't it?" he said. "Somebody jumps off the ice and somebody jumps on it. It's what they do. God bless 'em. I'd do the same thing if I was them and could do it. They're better for it."
Showalter can't escape the Yankees' shadow. The first 10 minutes of his daily briefing with reporters was dedicated to questions involving his earliest memories of Derek Jeter. Not that he minded, but he's wearing a different uniform now and has different priorities.
The only farewell tour Showalter cares about is waving a fond AL East goodbye to the Yankees. And once that happens, he'll gladly take the champagne poured over his head. He's watched Jeter do it enough.
"We're not going to do a lot of suck face until he quits playing for that other team," Showalter said.
His Orioles could be a factor in that timetable.