David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City
Back in spring training, Bud Selig's new one-and-done format for the wild card sounded like a real hoot. It promised tighter playoff races, more September suspense and, best of all, a reward for winning the division.
Great for baseball, right? Sure, just as long as you're not the wild card and have to worry about a 162-game season getting flushed by one lousy day.
Which brings us to the significance of what happened Monday night to the Yankees, who suddenly feel more vulnerable now than they have all season.
Put aside for a moment the 8-7, 11-inning loss to the Blue Jays, supposedly the soft underbelly of this critical 22-game stretch against the American League East. We'll even dismiss Rafael Soriano's blown save, coming on a three-run homer by Colby Rasmus with two outs in the ninth.
"It was tough for everyone on our team to watch," David Phelps said. "It's baseball. Things happen."
And that's as good an explanation as any for the truly demoralizing blow of Monday's defeat -- Mark Teixeira suffering a Grade 1 calf strain that is likely to cost him at least the next five games, including three against the Orioles, and as much as two weeks. If the Yankees are lucky.
"We've been dealing with this stuff all year," said Nick Swisher, who will reprise his role as Teixeira's replacement for the second time in a month. "As bad as it is to say, the show goes on, I guess. We're going to have to do some work."
No argument here, Swish. The Yankees caught a break with the Rays' loss to the Rangers, but the Orioles are now in second place, trailing the leaders by only 3 games. What once looked like a chance for the Yankees to deliver a knockout blow to the rest of the AL East now has the potential to boomerang back as a punch to their own jaw.
Another solid outing by Phelps helped the Yankees forget the recently DL'ed Ivan Nova, but Teixeira's absence will hurt beyond the void he leaves in the middle of the lineup. Losing his glove had an impact when Eric Chavez couldn't scoop a pickoff throw in the dirt in the 11th inning; the two-base throwing error set up the Jays' winning run.
The Yankees did gain more flexibility with Monday's acquisition of Steve Pearce from the Astros, a righty-hitting outfielder who also can play first base.
The division gantlet doesn't end until Sept. 20, right before a weekend visit by the Athletics, another wild-card contender. By the time the Yankees come out the other side, they'll either have a title within reach or be seriously sweating the final 13 games.
Judging by the way the Yankees were talking late Monday night after Teixeira's injury, they've already got tunnel vision. "We've had a lot of losses," Derek Jeter said. "We've lost a lot of good people over the course of this year. But we've got no choice. We can't feel sorry for ourselves."
The Yankees led the division by 10 games on July 18. Understandably, the conversation was much different then. Now, fighting off the Orioles and Rays looks as if it might take a while, especially without Teixeira.
In a clubhouse already stacked high with injuries, the Yankees' season is starting to seem like a game of Jenga. Which one will cause the whole pillar to come tumbling down? If he's out for an extended period, could Teixeira be that piece?
"It hurts," Joe Girardi said.
As for how much, the Yankees won't know the real damage for another month or so.