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SportsColumnistsAnthony Rieber

Gary Sanchez’s defensive woes a problem for one-game playoff

Gary Sanchez of the Yankees looks on after

Gary Sanchez of the Yankees looks on after a run scored on a passed ball against the Rays at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 28, 2017. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Yankees, who don’t have too many problems as they head into the postseason, suddenly have a problem.

A Gary Sanchez problem.

As in Gary Sanchez is having a tough time catching the baseball again. Since he’s a catcher, that’s a big problem.

And it’s one the Yankees cannot allow to end their season in Tuesday’s potential AL wild card game, even if it means using Sanchez as the designated hitter and starting Austin Romine behind the plate against the Twins.

The Yankees moved a step closer to learning their postseason fate on Thursday with a 9-6 loss to the Rays at Yankee Stadium. One more Yankees loss or Boston win will mean an AL East title for the Red Sox and a wild-card date with the Twins on Tuesday night for the Yankees in the Bronx.

Tampa Bay used a seven-run fifth inning to erase a 4-1 Yankees lead that included home runs by Brett Gardner, Aaron Judge (No. 51) and Greg Bird.

Sonny Gray was charged with five of those fifth-inning runs, and all of them were earned, but the ugly tone for the inning was set when two runs scored on pitches that weren’t stopped by Sanchez.

One was a wild pitch and the other a passed ball, Sanchez’s MLB-worst 16th of the season.

Sanchez is a beast at the plate with 33 home runs and 90 RBIs. Behind it is another story. The sight of the catcher trudging to the backstop to chase down a pitch simply happens too frequently and may be too dangerous for Joe Girardi to trust in a winner-take-all game.

Girardi already benched Sanchez once this summer because of his defense and gave him a few days to work on things. It would weaken the Yankees offense to have to play Romine, but Girardi has to consider just that before Tuesday. October is not the time to let a young player work on his weaknesses.

“I think he’s played pretty well,” Girardi said. “He had a lot of balls that he had to block tonight. There were a couple that got by him. And that’s going to happen. I feel good about his defense. I feel good about the progress he’s made. Will he get better as time goes on? Absolutely. But I think he’s made a lot of progress.”

Sanchez, who was hit in the neck by a pitch that sneaked under his mask in the second inning and in the back of the left shoulder while batting in the fifth, was not available for comment after the game.

Gray, who walked five, took the blame for Sanchez’s rough defensive night. “I was kind of all over the place all night,” Gray said. “I made it hard on Gary from the first inning.”

The Twins announced on Thursday that veteran righthander Ervin Santana will start on Tuesday. The Yankees have already named Luis Severino as their starter. It’s most likely to be a low-scoring game, one in which every pitch could potentially be the difference and one mistake could send a team home.

One other potential decision for Girardi is whether to play Aaron Hicks or Jacoby Ellsbury, but that seems like an easy call. Ellsbury, who went 2-for-4 on Thursday, is batting .354 in September and is 11-for-37 (.297) with one homer vs. Santana. Hicks, who had a pinch-hit home run in the ninth, is 0-for-6 with three strikeouts vs. Santana.

Sanchez is 0-for-3 vs. Santana. Romine has never faced him.

On Tuesday, the Yankees might be better off if Romine does the catching. Then Girardi can let Sanchez do what he does best: Swing the bat. And stay away from the backstop.

New York Sports