David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The Yankees never began pointing fingers, but they were getting close when the losing streak reached six Sunday night. Without mentioning names, Mark Teixeira alluded to the recent batch of costly blunders. Joe Girardi issued a teamwide alert to clean things up.
Standing in the crosshairs was Brett Gardner, whose baserunning blunder cost the Yankees big-time in Sunday's loss, their 10th in 11 games. And it hadn't washed off by Monday, either. The Yankees crushed the Royals, 14-1, and Gardner delivered one of five homers, but he remembered how the temperature was rising around the team.
"When you're losing, things get magnified," Gardner said. "Like me going first to third [Sunday] in the first inning, getting thrown out [for the first out of the inning]. If I had done that today, nobody would have talked about it. We've been making some mistakes -- mentally, physically -- and today we played pretty clean baseball and obviously scored a bunch of runs, so it made up for any little mistake we might have made."
Saying the Yankees were ready to go belly-up after a terrible two weeks obviously was premature. They're a flawed team, but so is everyone else. And as weak as the AL East seems to be, did we really think they would just cruise wire to wire?
Look at it this way. After a 21-12 start, the Yankees are just regressing back to what they should be -- or what many predicted for them before the season began.
If things break right, these Yankees can be a division winner, and Monday's matinee victory gave them a split (2-2) so far with the 28-16 Royals, the defending AL champs. Nathan Eovaldi stifled Kansas City for seven innings and the Yankees even handed out a few game balls for a pair of rookies, Slade Heathcott and Jacob Lindgren.
Heathcott, filling in for injured $155-million centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, hit his first home run. Lindgren, called up to patch a depleted bullpen, struck out two of the seven batters he faced. Nice stories, and both got a taste of the postgame media attention, with reporters crowded around their lockers.
"It's an awesome feeling just to be here," Heathcott said. "It's just surreal."
Those were nice sideshows, and the Yankees can talk all they want about needing some of this youth infusion to bolster an aging roster. But the bulk of the responsibility in the Bronx falls on the top-heavy portion of the $220-million payroll. Without those players earning their pay, you get 10 losses in 11 games and the Yankees falling back to .500, which is what they were dealing with before Monday.
Fortunately for them, there's enough talent around to press auto-correct and fix the mess before it gets out of control. Chase Headley, Brian McCann and Gardner homered in the first inning to give Eovaldi an 8-0 lead that only grew from there.
The barrage felt like a statement. The Yankees preferred to think of it as maybe blowing off some steam.
"Obviously, we knew we were better than we were playing, and there was a frustration there," Headley said. "But there's also no panic. That was a good thing in the clubhouse. There was some urgency and a little irritability about how we were playing, but there was no panic."
Not on May 25. Other than the Brewers and Rockies, no team can be counted out that early. Digging holes is a bad idea at any point of the season, and the Yankees' backsliding dropped them out of first place, but none of this was fatal. They should have Masahiro Tanaka back in the rotation for June 2 -- if Wednesday's rehab start goes as planned -- and Ellsbury's DL stint isn't expected to go too long.
"We've got a lot of guys in the room that have been around for a long time," Gardner said. "And we know what we're capable of doing."
That works both ways. The first five weeks, we saw the best of the Yankees, who shook off a poor start to go 18-6 and build a four-game lead in the AL East. Then they went backward.
We'll see how long this correction lasts. For now, the Yankees will take it day by day.