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It's hard for even optimists to think Yankees will play in October

Yankees manager Joe Girardi walks off the mound

Yankees manager Joe Girardi walks off the mound during their game against the Kansas City Royals at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 7, 2014. Credit: Getty Images / Elsa

Joe Girardi always calls himself "an optimist'' and has publicly held true to form even after the toughest of losses.

But lately he hasn't sounded terribly convincing when discussing his club's chances of landing a playoff spot, obviously for good reason.

The Yankees have started a nine-game homestand 3-3, including a walk-off 5-4 victory over the Red Sox Thursday night that featured two ninth-inning home runs and was portrayed as the latest potentially "season-turning'' win.

The Yankees then lost two of three to the Royals and were shut out twice, leaving them at 73-68 with 21 games to play. They are 10 games behind the AL East-leading Orioles and five games behind Seattle for the second wild-card spot.

With the Mariners (79-64), Tigers (79-65) and Indians (74-68) ahead of the Yankees, it would take some kind of miracle for them not to miss the postseason for a second straight year. That hasn't happened since 1992-93.

"I'll never give up on them; it's just not my personality,'' Girardi said of his struggling hitters after Sunday's 2-0 loss, a game in which the Yankees went 0-for-16 with runners on base. "They just have to continue to grind it out, try to get better every day. We have our last off day [Monday] and then we have to win a whole lot.''

The problem, of course, is that even if the Yankees were to do something that looks next to impossible for this club -- such as post a 16-5 record to get to 89 victories -- each of the teams ahead of them would have to collapse. Anyone see the Mariners, Tigers and Indians all playing sub-.500 ball the rest of the way?

"It's obviously not the easiest path we've built for ourselves, but we're going to keep fighting,'' Chase Headley said. "We have to take care of our own business, we have to go out and win games, win series, and that's all we can really focus on. We wish it was a different circumstance, but it's not. We're going to have to play extremely well from here on out. We're capable of doing it, we just have to come out and put it together.''

Headley sounded about as confident as Girardi did.

As the Yankees continue their steady march toward elimination, the focus will keep ratcheting up on the countdown to the end for Derek Jeter.

This is a nightmare scenario of sorts for the shortstop, who has known almost nothing but the playoffs in his Yankees career but appears destined to miss out on the postseason for only the second time. (Jeter was on the disabled list at the end of last season so he wouldn't have played even if the Yankees had made the playoffs.)

Meaningless September games will be bad enough for Jeter; being the sole focal point of those games will be even more uncomfortable. He got a taste of it Sunday, and although he was appreciative of the pregame ceremony, there was an oddity to it.

"It was very strange,'' Jeter said. "It's kind of a different situation. We have three weeks left in the season and we're trying to win games. It was a unique situation. I don't know if there's been many people who have been in that situation, so it's kind of tough to explain how you feel. You appreciate all the support, you appreciate all the kind words people are saying. But at the same time, I'm still trying to play a game, so it's difficult to juggle at times. Yeah, it is a very, very unique situation.''

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