David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BALTIMORE - Outside the visitors' clubhouse, standing beside the golf carts and spare lawn mowers late Saturday night, Joe Girardi finally had been backed into a corner.
It required a humbling doubleheader sweep by the Orioles, more than 10 hours cooped up at Camden Yards, playing miserable baseball in drizzly, raw conditions more suited to crab fishing, to convince the Yankees' manager that the moment of truth had arrived.
After two days of telling us the importance of resting his aching regulars, that his team's health took priority over home-field advantage, Girardi no longer had that luxury after the Yankees' twin losses and the Astros' 6-2 victory -- meant that the margin for error had evaporated.
It has come to this: Game No. 162 will decide where the Yankees play Tuesday night's wild-card showdown -- either in the Bronx, Houston or possibly Arlington, Texas, depending on the results of the season's final afternoon.
And for Girardi, the gloves are off. He promised Saturday night to go with his full starting lineup for the series finale against the Orioles, with only Dellin Betances -- who threw 23 pitches in taking the Game 2 loss -- possibly off limits.
"It's kind of been that way all year," Girardi said. "We've been down and needed to bounce back. We'll do it again tomorrow."
The Yankees have been sliding for a while and are 15-16 since Sept. 1, not exactly a wave of positivity heading into the playoffs. But Girardi took a cautious approach to the first two games of this series, and the split-squad strategy usually isn't a winning formula once the Grapefruit League schedule is over.
Rather than deploy his "A'' team in either of the two games, Girardi chopped his roster in half, as if he were sending one to Sarasota and keeping the other at Steinbrenner Field.
We know what he was trying to do. By starting Ivan Nova in Game 1, with Alex Rodriguez anchoring that crew, Girardi hoped to steal the noon opener and make Game 2 a meaningless exercise. In that best-case scenario, Girardi would have Luis Severino use the nightcap as a playoff primer and trot out a Scranton-heavy lineup.
The Orioles, however, weren't on board with that plan. And maybe Girardi forgot whom he was messing with. Buck Showalter will be watching the playoffs on TV this week after winning the AL East title last year, but he wasn't mailing this series in. If Showalter could make life difficult for the Yankees -- with a plane ride to Houston, for instance -- you can bet he'd play through a hurricane for the opportunity.
The first game was no contest. Nova kept it close for a while, but Chasen Shreve -- who has just about pitched himself off the postseason roster -- blew up during the Orioles' four-run sixth inning and the Yankees' bats were disturbingly quiet again in the 9-2 loss.
Afterward, during the intermission, we still didn't get much of an urgent vibe from the Yankees. Rodriguez, who went 0-for-4, was asked if there was a mounting pressure to finally nail down home-field advantage.
"There's only two games left," Rodriguez said before Severino took the mound a few hours later. "It can't mount any more. We're going to be due. We're going to be due to turn this thing around."
In Game 2, a 4-3 loss, the Yankees at least were competitive. The Orioles scored the winning run in the eighth on the second of two wild pitches that inning by Betances.
"There was nothing I could do," he said. "Today's situation was unfortunate. It happens."
If these things continue to happen Tuesday night, this will be an awfully brief playoff appearance.
The Yankees have performed lately like a team content to be strutting around in those MLB-issued caps and T-shirts, their wardrobe for Thursday's cork-popping party in the Bronx.
"We've got to find a way to play better," said Chase Headley, who whiffed as a pinch hitter with two on in the sixth inning. 'We're frustrated we're not playing the way we want to."
That's understandable. But the Yankees just have to summon something, from somewhere, to become a dangerous team again, starting Sunday. Because right now, they're a pushover, and those don't have a very long October lifespan.