As expected, the road to the AL East title this season again goes through the bowling pins in Baltimore.
Not at all expected: that road looking like the LIE at rush hour for the Yankees.
Pick your adjective for Saturday’s 4-3 loss to the Orioles in the Bronx. But the Yankees’ stunning futility against a team that should be buried two floors beneath the cellar of the division kind of defies explanation.
Here’s all you need to know about why the AL East currently lines up the way it does: the Rays went 18-1 vs. the Woes this season, the Yankees dropped to 9-6 after Saturday’s three-hit effort. No one else in baseball has lost to the O’s more than four times.
Even if the division is fading from reach, the Yankees still have a wild-card race to contend with, and fumbling around with a team that "improved" to 50 games under .500 by rallying in the ninth against shaky closer Aroldis Chapman is a good way to jeopardize that playoff spot.
Did we mention the Yankees needed 11 innings and Giancarlo Stanton’s cannon-shot RBI single to hold off the mighty O’s on Friday night?
It’s hard to rationalize, but I asked Aaron Boone if he could anyway, considering that everyone watching in stunned disbelief probably wondered the same as the Yankees were held hitless into the seventh inning by the pitching staff with the worst ERA (5.81) and highest opponents' batting average (.271) in the majors.
"These games are super-important," Boone said. "We got held down enough today, so that’s frustrating and unfortunate, but we got a big one tomorrow that we got to grab."
The Yankees’ first hit Saturday came with one out in the seventh when pinch hitter Gleyber Torres slapped a grounder that second baseman Jahmal Jones tried to backhand behind the bag before playing it like a soccer ball. That also drove in the Yankees’ first run — a rally generated by an error, a walk and a long fly ball — to cut the deficit to 3-1.
The inning ended in familiar fashion, with pinch hitter Luke Voit grounding into a double play — the Yankees’ 124th for the season, second-most in baseball. But with six outs left and the Orioles’ flammable bullpen, a comeback was reasonable to assume.
And it did happen, with Joey Gallo snapping an 0-for-17 skid by launching a tying two-run homer off Jorge Lopez in the eighth. To say Gallo was due would be an understatement. His .130 batting average in pinstripes (55 strikeouts in 115 at-bats) entering the eighth was rock-bottom in MLB during that span. And before that swing, reliever Clay Holmes (four batters, four strikeouts in Saturday’s appearance) was gaining as the better deadline acquisition than the former Rangers slugger.
Gallo’s 31st homer — and sixth since the trade — figured to provide the nudge the Yankees’ napping offense needed. But the next six Yankees went in order, including three strikeouts, including the game-ending whiff by Torres.
One loss to the pathetic Orioles isn’t going to derail the Yankees’ playoff push, even in September. But there were a few red flags. The offense has sputtered since the 13-game winning streak ended a week ago in Oakland and Chapman seems to be burning oil at this late stage of the season.
Post-streak, the Yankees are 2-5 while hitting .202 with seven homers and 3.57 runs per game. They didn’t go with their "goal-line package" Saturday — keeping Stanton at DH and having Voit coming off the bench, where he sat along with Gary Sanchez and Torres, who was just activated Friday from the IL.
Put it this way: The lineup softened up quite a bit once you got to Brett Gardner at No. 6, but Boone probably wasn’t thinking he needed the A-listers to beat the O’s for a Saturday matinee at the Stadium.
"The Orioles are not considered a great team, but they’re a big-league team and they have good arms as well," Gallo said. "It just happens."
But as much as the Yankees were ready to flush Saturday’s brutal loss, the sight of Chapman unraveling again doesn’t disappear so quickly. In the ninth, he did have leadoff hitter Ryan Mountcastle struck out before the wild pitch skipped away from Sanchez, but a single and walk later set up Pedro Severino’s tiebreaking sacrifice fly.
Chapman’s velocity seem to be there — he maxed out at 100 mph with a 98 average — but the difficulty remains harnessing it. With the count full and the bases loaded, he threw Severino a slider that the O’s catcher smacked deep enough to leftfield.
"Definitely some bad moments," Chapman said. "I’m just fighting to be able to overcome them."
Starting Sunday, the Yankees have four games left with the Orioles. Somehow, they’re responsible for 14% of Baltimore’s wins this season. Nice of them, but enough’s enough.