David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
With a division title on the line, the Blue Jays had their ace, David Price, on the mound for Monday night's series opener at Rogers Centre.
The Yankees? Masahiro Tanaka was back in New York, resting a Grade 1 hamstring strain, essentially on ice until they get a better feel for the most likely playoff scenario.
The two weren't going to face each other anyway, not after Tanaka lost to the Mets last Friday. But the original plan had Tanaka set up for Wednesday's finale, a spot now occupied by the recently demoted Ivan Nova.
As Joe Girardi is fond of saying, this week's pitching matchups are not what you want, from a Yankees' perspective. And after a draining Subway Series weekend at Citi Field, getting Price -- a top Cy Young candidate -- Monday night was not an ideal situation, which ended in a 4-2 loss for the Yankees.
Scavenging for a few runs off Price was only part of the problem. There also was the not-so-small matter of squeezing what the Yankees could from converted starter Adam Warren, who's been filling in for the injured Nathan Eovaldi. The only thing Brian Cashman knows for sure about Eovaldi is that his aching elbow won't allow him back during the regular season, and that's probably not such a great indicator for a playoff cameo, either.
But that's thinking a bit too far ahead, something the Yankees don't have the luxury of doing in the middle of what is probably the final battle for the AL East. Their priority Monday night was seeing how long Warren could contain the Jays with 85 pitches.
"They've hit better than we have," Girardi said of their previous clash. "They've hit their share of homers. They've put up some big numbers against us. We've got to control their bats."
Before you lump in Warren with the pitch-count hysteria sweeping through the majors, it's important to note this matter of adjusting to a different assignment, the result of switching from the bullpen to the rotation.
There's a reason Terry Collins continued to vent Monday over the Harvey Rules, and not only because he was forced to lift the Mets' conflicted ace after his stellar five-inning performance the previous night against the Yankees. Calling it quits after 77 pitches, as the Mets did with Matt Harvey did Sunday, leaves half the game to the bullpen, a dicey proposition under the best of circumstances.
What's a first half of Michael Jordan worth? Or Peyton Manning? Certainly good enough for a lead, but the job is far from finished. Monday, in Warren's case, Girardi said before the game he was hoping for six innings. That's probably overly optimistic against the Blue Jays.
It wasn't all that surprising when Warren's pitch count escalated and the best he could do was one out in the fourth inning. Toronto tagged him for three runs in the first, but Warren stranded two and held the Jays scoreless from there until handing the ball to James Pazos.
Despite Warren's early exit, Girardi is comfortable playing bullpen chess over five innings. But that's not a winning formula with less than two weeks left in the regular season, with no days off between now and Oct. 4.
Losing Tanaka, even if it's just the one turn as the Yankees say, may end up being the difference in the division. And that's probably what they're thinking already. When asked where Tanaka would slot back in, both Girardi and Cashman suggested it would be predicated on the Yankees' playoff positioning.
"All those things will definitely be part of the conversation," Cashman said. "When we see where we're sitting, we'll make a decision on placement."
After Monday night's loss, to a dominant Price, the Yankees are 3 ½ games in back of the Blue Jays, squashing any chance of departing Toronto on top. Next up is rookie Luis Severino, who will face the Jays for a third time Tuesday. And then a shaky Nova.
The AL East isn't a done deal yet. But first place is feeling a little more distant for the Yankees.