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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Let's face it: Yankees are now playing meaningless games in September

Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter reacts after he hits

Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter reacts after he hits the ball into his leg against the Tampa Bay Rays during the fifth inning of an MLB baseball game at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

With apologies to Yogi, sometimes it is over before it's over. That thought seemed to be going through Joe Girardi's mind before Tuesday night's series opener against the Rays when the manager had to explain the absences of both Brett Gardner and Martin Prado from the lineup.

Sitting in that conference room, listening to Girardi deliver the grim news, we got the same impression. Which is probably why none of the reporters even bothered to ask him the requisite question of the past month: How crucial are these next three games with Tampa Bay?

The truth? Not all that important. Not anymore. The Yankees blew their chance to make these games matter by going 3-3 against the Red Sox and Royals earlier during this homestand. The big mistake was losing those two to Kansas City, the only wild-card team the Yankees had a chance to damage head-to-head from that point on.

And now that Girardi has to find Band-aids for the Gardner/Prado injuries, we're not anticipating much from this lineup the rest of the way. This also marks the second straight year Gardner could be missing from the stretch run, this time because of an abdominal strain.

Last season, Gardner was lost to an oblique strain, and the Yankees proceeded to lose nine of their final 15 games in falling short of the playoffs. This September doesn't look very promising. either.

In Gardner's place was Mets' castoff Chris Young, whose primary job had been serving as simulated-game fodder for Masahiro Tanaka. Tuesday night was his first start in pinstripes, and let's face it, he was cut loose in Flushing for a reason.

Even for a self-proclaimed optimist like Girardi, thinking that Young could be a viable replacement for Gardner was a considerable stretch. And we haven't got to the bad part yet. Girardi talked as if his abdominal strain will keep him out for an indefinite period. Remember, the Yankees only have 20 games left. "I'm not sure when we'll get him back," Girardi said.

Then there was using Stephen Drew, a .159 hitter since coming to the Yankees, for the ailing Prado, whose strained left hamstring is so bad that the medical staff fears playing "could make it worsen to where it becomes a serious issue."

That sounds like a real problem. Prado has a slash line of .298/.322/.509 in his 31 games since coming to the Yankees. Now Prado could be on the shelf for a while, and the Yankees don't have the luxury of time.

In some ways, Tuesday night played out in predictable fashion. Jacoby Ellsbury continued in his role as would-be savior by leading off the fourth with a home run. Not so predictable was Drew fueling a fifth-inning rally with a single that loaded the bases for Young, who lined the first pitch for a two-run single that cut the deficit to 4-3.

But the Yankees have stayed afloat by relying on the unexpected -- whether it's from Chris Capuano, the ageless Ichiro Suzuki or Young. There's just not enough of it to spread around. Not when you have this much ground to make up and the offensive core of the team shows up only once a week.

The other issue was Hiroki Kuroda picking an inopportune night to have his worst start of the season. Digging out of 4-0 holes is not something this team is capable of -- even if it came within a controversial Rule 7.13 (collision) call of tying the score in the fifth before Drew was supposedly confirmed out at the plate by a 1:19 review.

In our view, that was a mistake on the umpire's part. But in the big picture, it didn't really matter one way or the other.

New York Sports