David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
For the previous two decades, in these sky-is-falling scenarios, Derek Jeter would appear at his locker -- suit neatly pressed, tie straightened -- and tell the Yankee Universe that everything would be OK.
Flashing that winning smile, the Captain made us feel silly for even suggesting it. Losing streaks, dwindling leads, the Orioles or Red Sox or Rays at the door. Always the same response. Long season, man. We'll be fine.
But Jeter is gone, off running his website, and now it's the supercharged Blue Jays knocking. Or kicking in that door, as they did with this weekend's three-game sweep at Yankee Stadium.
And who was standing at his locker after Sunday's potentially destabilizing 2-0 loss to Toronto? None other than Alex Rodriguez.
"Look, you have to keep some perspective," he said. "This is no time for panic for us. We've had a very good season so far. We're in first place for a reason. We like our team. We trust our team."
To his credit, he was every bit as convincing as Jeter in the crisis-management department. After what he's been through, Rodriguez is more polished at shaping public perception these days than a limo full of PR flaks. And for the most part, this feels like Rodriguez's team as the Yankees turn toward the home stretch -- with the Blue Jays primed to overtake them.
Whatever vacuum remains from Jeter's retirement, something or someone has to fill that void down the stretch, which is now a full-on, steel-cage match of an AL East brawl with the Blue Jays. The Yankees have lost 6 1/2 games to Toronto in the past 12 days; their lead over the Blue Jays unraveled from eight games on July 28 to 11/2 after the sweep.
That's scary and unsettling, unless a team has a veteran core to provide some stability, to restore equilibrium. We'll find out if that's the case with these Yankees, who now have A-Rod as their center of gravity, from his milestone-chasing in the first half to the need for stepping up during these final eight weeks of the season.
The Yankees went from scoring 90 runs in 10 games to only four in five games -- including zero in the last 26 innings, dating to Mark Teixeira's solo homer in the second inning Friday night.
Combine that with Toronto's resurgence, helped by the major additions of Troy Tulowitzki and David Price, and we're wondering if the Blue Jays' statement series was an aberration or the beginning of a trend.
"We definitely took a punch this weekend," Rodriguez said, "and good teams punch back. Whether it's Texas or Toronto or whoever, we've taken punches before, and the season's never a straight line.
"There's going to be some challenges along the way. And for us, it's all about the way we respond that matters."
The Yankees got knocked around plenty during these three games, and not just by Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson, who each homered Sunday off Masahiro Tanaka for the only runs. Their own fans also left a few bruises.
After the loss, Brett Gardner had a bright red welt on his bald head, the result of someone throwing Bautista's long homer back -- and nailing the leftfielder with the baseball.
Later, Teixeira was jostled by a fan who tried to climb past him for a foul ball as soon as it dropped out of his glove, with Teixeira still lying stretched out across the seats.
"We need to tell the fans, you can insult but you cannot assault," Teixeira said. "We know you're upset. We lost three in a row. We're sorry. But just keep it to insults, not assaults."
Gardner shrugged off his beaning, telling reporters he was fine because of a hard head. But it was an uncomfortable weekend all around for the Yankees, who now embark on a six-game road trip that finishes up with three more against the Blue Jays at revitalized Rogers Centre, where the Blue Jays are attracting crowds again. And the threat is very real.
"This isn't going to be comfortable the rest of the way," Teixeira said. "We have to fight for every win, and that's what we expect every single game."
That message now is loud and clear, no matter who was delivering it.