Imagine the Yankees missing the playoffs by one pitch.
Not one game. One pitch.
Sounds crazy to say here in mid-September with 2 1/2 weeks to go and plenty of baseball still to play. But when the dust clears on Oct. 3, if the Yankees somehow have been edged out for a wild-card spot by the Blue Jays and Red Sox, you can bet plenty of people will be thinking back to this swampy Thursday night at Everglades North by Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
With two outs in the ninth inning, a 2-and-2 pitch to .189-hitting Orioles catcher Austin Wynns — a sailing 98-mph sinker thrown by Clay Holmes — caromed off the outstretched glove of Gary Sanchez, and the wild pitch allowed pinch runner Kelvin Gutierrez to score the tying run.
What happened next? Wynns swung through a 97-mph sinker for his fourth strikeout. One pitch too late.
The 10th inning featured all-too-familiar details. The Yankees couldn’t get ghost runner Brett Gardner in from second base on three tries from the heart of the lineup. And the Orioles — who opened with a bunt single — loaded the bases against Wandy Peralta before Austin Hays slapped the game-winner through the left side of the infield for the 3-2 victory.
This was one of those rare few nights where Aaron Boone, former TV analyst, struggled to find the words to describe the brutal nature of what he just witnessed. The Yankees were one strike away from finally doing what they should have done all season — sweep the lowly Orioles — and instead wound up slipping a half-game behind the Jays and Red Sox.
"They all sting," Boone said. "And we’ve had a lot that have stung at different times during the course of the year. This certainly falls in that category. We’ve got to get over it."
The bizarre nature of Thursday’s agonizing finish fits neatly into the inexplicable season-long struggle against the Orioles, who improved to 52 games below .500 (47-99) with their eighth win (in 19 tries) against the Yankees. By comparison, Baltimore has 10 wins against the Rays, Blue Jays and Red Sox combined.
Why is that? There’s no logical reason. Just as it doesn’t make sense that the Yankees scored their only two runs in the second inning on Joey Gallo’s homer and Gio Urshela’s one-out RBI double, then were shut out for the next eight frames by an Orioles bullpen with a 5.71 ERA, the worst in baseball.
Overall, the Yankees went 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position and stranded 10, but still ended up just that one strike away from avoiding more embarrassment. Jordan Montgomery struck out 12 in 5 2/3 innings as the Orioles looked as if they wanted nothing more than to get out of the steady downpour and scrape themselves clean of the mud.
But as Boone & Co. have learned this season, letting the O’s hang around is a recipe for humiliation. Baltimore has 12 wins this season decided by one run, and five are against the Yankees, with one each for the other seven teams (hat tip to stat guru @ktsharp). This also was the fifth loss for the Yankees this year when leading after eight innings, their most since 2012. Only the Nationals have more this season.
"It sucks, but we don’t really have time to dwell on it," Montgomery said. "We just got to get back on the horse tomorrow and try to get a W."
The boxscore will show that the Yankees’ bullpen was directly responsible for Thursday’s loss, but scoring two runs doesn’t win a ton of games, even against the Orioles. The Yankees are 10-31 in those scenarios this year, and working with no margin for error Thursday, playing in the Camden Yards slop, was tantamount to welcoming disaster.
So that’s what they got in the ninth, when Holmes — after a perfect eighth inning — threw a pair of wild pitches that clanged off Sanchez’s glove. The first allowed Gutierrez to advance to second base before he took third on a groundout. The next one tied the score at 2.
Sanchez makes a convenient fall guy for both. And you could argue that a more agile catcher who's better defensively manages to grab them — or at least prevent them from soaring past — despite Holmes throwing a wet ball nowhere near the targets and Sanchez crouching in quicksand.
"You trust Gary back there," Holmes said of the dicey situation. "It doesn’t really change your approach or what you’re trying to do. You definitely need to know where your misses are, but you’re missing isn't really something that you’re thinking about."
If the Yankees miss the playoffs, they’ll remember all the ugly losses to the Orioles, Thursday’s in particular. And the one pitch that got away.