David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TORONTO - Derek Jeter knew the numbers. In Sunday's ninth-inning matchup with Casey Janssen, the odds were against him.
His only hit off the Blue Jays' closer in 16 previous at-bats was a homer, balanced by six strikeouts. But with the tying run 90 feet away, this moment stood alone. "Those are the fun situations," Jeter said. "You want to be in those situations."
On this day, however, the data proved triumphant. Jeter punched a soft liner directly to second baseman Steve Tolleson, who sealed a 4-3 Yankees loss that could very well be labeled their worst of the season.
Watching Jeter come up empty was sobering. There would be no ninth-inning magic, no two-out rescue mission by the Yankees' captain, who likely is down to his final 27 games.
We thought Jeter might deliver in that spot because that's what he does. Or used to do. The Yankees believed it. We didn't ask, but it's probably a safe bet that the majority of fans among the sellout crowd of 45,678 expected another Jeter highlight for the 2014 commemorative DVD. Many even chanted his name. "You feel good about it," Joe Girardi said. "But it didn't happen."
That's baseball. Or life. Or whatever shoulder-shrug spin you like to put on things that don't go your way. Jeter can't always be the hero, and the Yankees aren't getting an automatic bid to the postseason this year. They're going to have to earn it, just like everyone else. And the numbers, just like the Jeter-Janssen showdown, don't look good.
In what was supposed to be a critical road trip this past week, the Yankees went 3-4. Sunday's loss dropped them to 70-65. Sizing up the wild-card competition, you have to figure 88 wins could be the cutoff point. That means a team that hasn't gotten to eight games over .500 all year has to go 18-9 through the end of September.
Does that sound feasible? Their best month was April, when they went 15-11 (.577).
And what's so great about returning to the Bronx for nine games against the Red Sox, Royals and Rays? The Yankees are only 33-31 in the Bronx.
Obviously, teams can heat up over short stretches. But by now, we have a decent idea of who these Yankees are, and they don't appear capable of such a sprint. Their longest winning streak is five games, done twice -- same as their longest losing streak. Despite the midseason upgrades, the Yankees can't seem to generate the type of push they'll need to make the playoffs.
After Sunday's gut-puncher, it's getting harder to suspend that disbelief. Brandon McCarthy -- the de facto ace of this staff -- failed to hold a 3-0 lead, imploding in spectacular fashion. Not only did he serve up back-to-back homers to Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista with two outs in the sixth, but Edwin Encarnacion opened the seventh with another rocket to tie it.
To see a ground-ball machine like McCarthy look like a hired gun for the Home Run Derby had to be shocking for the Yankees.
Sitting at his desk, Girardi seemed more down than usual after a loss. His team had just flushed another winnable series on this trip, again by one run. Girardi's not stupid. "You know what's in front of you," he said. "You need to win games."
That's what the Yankees repeatedly tell us. Their problem is the winning part. And aside from a rotation that's been propping them up, the rest of the operation is spotty.
The good news is Jacoby Ellsbury (sprained left ankle) made it back Sunday in a pinch-hitting cameo, and his one-out double set the stage for Jeter's dramatic turn at the plate.
But the Yankees have dug themselves a sizable hole for September. And yet they still keep digging a deeper one.
"Don't complicate things," said Jeter, always the optimist. "If we win every one of our games, we'll be fine."
He was kidding around, of course. Poking fun at our attempts to do the math, to sort out all the scenarios. But the Yankees still haven't sold us yet on the one that gets them to October.