It got personal Monday night at Camden Yards, and who better to take it there with the Yankees than Buck Showalter, one of the Bronx team's primary antagonists since parting ways with George Steinbrenner back in 1995.
And this wasn't Showalter chirping about Alex Rodriguez again, as he did last month by insisting that Bud Selig shouldn't allow the Yankees to get under next year's luxury tax via A-Rod's looming suspension. This was between Showalter and Joe Girardi, who was spotted chastising Orioles third-base coach Bobby Dickerson in the first inning.
The crime? Girardi wouldn't cop to his accusations, saying only that he always has and always will "protect" his players. But Showalter gladly gave Girardi up on the sign-stealing allegations. Hey, all's fair in the American League East. Especially when, in Buck's world, it's a battle between the pinstriped Goliath and his "small-market" Orioles. Were the big, bad Yankees ticked off about his O's swiping -- allegedly -- the location of CC Sabathia's pitches?
"I'm pretty sure that's what it was," Showalter said. "Seems if we were doing that, Manny [Machado] wouldn't have bunted, right? If we had the pitches?"
Makes for a good cover story, anyway, having Machado bunt Nick Markakis over to third base with none out in the first inning. But this isn't the first time this has come up between the Yankees and Orioles. Last season, Russell Martin accused Robert Andino of the same offense during an April series at Camden Yards. That stuff happens, and when two managers are jockeying for September position, like Showalter and Girardi this month, lines get blurred -- or crossed.
"We're fighting for the same things," Showalter said, "so there's a small margin of error. I look at those things. The first 10 or 15 pitches every night. There's certain little checkpoints."
Girardi's no dummy, either, and in going through his own list, he later admitted to seeing something he didn't like. Scolding an opposing coach, what a surefire way to agitate Showalter -- just as Girardi himself would have gone ballistic if Showalter had done the same thing to a member of his staff.
Just last month, Girardi stomped around the Fenway turf, berating both Ryan Dempster and plate umpire Brian O'Nora before he was tossed -- then continued his measured tirade from the manager's office. These are emotional times, and if there is a toehold to be gained, however slight, Girardi and Showalter will do what they can to exploit that crack. Monday, we saw the consequences of such behavior in the overheated September crucible.
As the two managers moved on a collision course behind home plate, Showalter pointed at Girardi and repeatedly yelled, "That's not right, Joe!" But afterward, Showalter didn't really seem to mind Girardi's accusations. Just the yelling at his coach. To Showalter, the cloak-and-dagger stuff is part of doing business.
"Hey, we all do that," Showalter said. "That's why we constantly change our signs with them and other clubs that you see a lot in our division. In our mind, it's not happening."
As for Girardi, he's starting to look like a captain whose doomed ship finally scraped one iceberg too many. Girardi can rant against the rising waters, but there's nothing he alone can do to stop the ship from sinking.
It wasn't so much losing three of four to the Red Sox. As demoralizing as that was, the damage done in the wild-card standings, even with the Orioles and Indians leapfrogging the Yankees, was not irreversible considering the Rays' recent swoon. The real pain was caused by the additional injuries to David Robertson, Boone Logan and, yes, even a diminished Derek Jeter.
Throw in the exhausted Mariano Rivera, and Camden Yards could be shaping up as the site of the Yankees' last stand in 2013.
"I certainly don't like where we're sitting because you want to be in the driver's seat," Brian Cashman said before Monday night's game. "We're not in the driver's seat. But I know one thing -- we're going to fight and give it everything we got. Simple as that."
Later that night, Girardi didn't give an inch to Showalter. But at this point, you really have to wonder how much the Yankees can possibly have left.