David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TORONTO - It doesn't take much to knock down a house of cards. And that's what the Yankees' offense is these days. A flimsy, fragile, unreliable stack of hitters that was being held up lately by one Jacoby Ellsbury.
Remove Ellsbury for any extended period of time, and this whole thing is coming down. Sooner rather than later.
Sound extreme? Then you try to explain what happened Saturday at Rogers Centre, where Drew Hutchison looked like Roy Halladay, circa 2008, in holding the Yankees to one hit in seven scoreless innings.
That knocked his ERA all the way down to 4.47.
Maybe Ellsbury wouldn't have saved the Yankees by himself, but without him, the 2-0 deficit felt like 10 times that. And the way he has been feeling at the plate recently, he's capable of beating the Blue Jays with a couple of swings. In his previous 11 games, he hit .455 (20-for-44) with a double, triple, four homers, 11 RBIs and six steals.
That's a good week for the rest of the Yankees' lineup combined. But Toronto figured out how to stop Ellsbury -- by having catcher Dioner Navarro stick his left foot in Ellsbury's slide path Friday night. The minor collision, judged not to be in violation of Rule 7.13, wrenched Ellsbury's ankle and may have put a big chunk of September in jeopardy.
Earlier that afternoon, during the meet-and-greet portion of his farewell tour, Derek Jeter reminisced about how another Jays catcher, Ken Huckaby, dislocated his shoulder in 2003 when this building still was called SkyDome. The Yankees made it to the World Series that year, but could Navarro have inflicted enough damage on Ellsbury to have critically wounded their fading playoff hopes?
It's possible. Ellsbury couldn't play Saturday because of what Joe Girardi grudgingly called a left ankle sprain, and there's no telling when he'll return to the lineup. He spent the entire game getting treatment and didn't look great shuffling from the shower to his locker afterward.
He wasn't on crutches. And for as long as we were allowed in the clubhouse, he didn't have any sort of walking boot on his left leg. Those have to be counted in the positive column.
On the negative side, Ellsbury was moving at senior-citizen speed and obviously favoring the ankle. If the Yankees were having a family softball outing for Sunday's series finale against the Blue Jays, we'd say Ellsbury would make a serviceable short-fielder. But sending him back out to patrol the centerfield turf in a major-league game? That seems like too big a jump.
Said Girardi, "I'd really be shocked if he played."
And that was the most optimistic thing to come out of his mouth. Otherwise, he talked about this being a DL-type injury -- rosters expand Monday, so there's no need -- and how it is much worse than he previously thought.
Ellsbury wasn't as big on the gloom-and-doom as Girardi. He even suggested without a noticeable trace of sarcasm that returning Sunday is a possibility. We'll give him points for that, but it doesn't sound logical. The only tests performed on Ellsbury's ankle so far came from the Rogers Centre's fluoroscope, a less advanced sort of X-ray device, and he won't be checked out by the Yankees' medical staff until Monday, when the team returns home.
Ellsbury is going to require a trip to the MRI tube for the Yankees to know the full extent of his ankle injury. And we are talking about their $153-million leadoff hitter, who's signed for another six seasons beyond this. No matter how much Ellsbury fights to return for the series finale, playing him Sunday might be a little reckless, especially with the off day Monday.
"I do feel I have a high pain tolerance, and in the past, I've come back from injuries fairly quick," Ellsbury said. "This time of year, every win is important, and I need to be out there."
We agree. The Yankees really, really need Ellsbury back in the lineup. Only 28 games remain, and what we witnessed Saturday, against an all-but-dead Blue Jays team, does not bode well for finishing strong if he is sitting in the dugout.
A year ago, the Yankees lost Brett Gardner to an oblique strain and immediately went in the tank, losing nine of the last 15 and missing the playoffs.
Ellsbury is even more important to this lineup. Draw your own conclusions.