What if the Yankees aren't good enough? What if the Orioles really are better? That was the prevailing vibe Thursday night at Camden Yards, where 46,298 fans showed up to honor Cal Ripken Jr. and got the added bonus of a statement-making 10-6 victory that nudged Baltimore back into a tie atop the American League East.
All Joe Girardi has to go on at the moment is faith in the names he scribbles down on the lineup card because there's nowhere else to look for answers. As Buck Showalter explained Thursday in typically understated fashion, no manager is capable of putting a team on his shoulders for a piggyback ride to the postseason.
"It's about the players," Showalter said. "They play the game."
Don't underestimate Buck. He enjoys moving the chess pieces around the board as much as the next middle-aged guy in polyester pants. But he's got a point.
Unlike the Yankees, who continue to wait for bigger contributions from the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano, the Orioles are getting them -- as they did again Thursday night with a six-homer barrage that included a pair from Mark Reynolds.
What's Girardi to do? A-Rod is no Reynolds, who is batting .423 (11-for-26) with eight homers and 16 RBIs in his last seven games. Matt Wieters, whose three-run blast gave the Orioles a 4-0 lead in the first inning, has specifically been lethal to the Yankees. He entered with a slash-line of .396/.475/.623 in 14 previous head-to-head meetings.
"They're playing with a lot of confidence," Rodriguez said.
And the Yankees?
"I feel good about where we're at," A-Rod said. "I think we're going to be fine."
The ferocity of the Orioles' eighth-inning attack was something to behold. Think "Shark Week," when those breaching Great Whites are gulping seals two or three at a time. After the Yankees mustered all they could to tie the score at 6 with five runs on three hits, a hit batter and three walks, Baltimore blasted three more homers in the bottom half. "They trumped us," Rodriguez said.
While Showalter has been riding the orange wave lately, Girardi sounds like a man doing his best to tread water, to keep paddling furiously until help arrives. One thing that didn't help was hitting coach Kevin Long telling reporters Tuesday night that laying down a bunt or two might help shake the Yankees out of their funk. As soon as Girardi found out, he mocked the idea. The whole episode reeked of desperation, which is best avoided at this time of year.
Of course, that scent lingered around the team for another day, and Girardi grew testy when the topic was revisited before the game. "Look," he said, "It's really unfortunate that it's come to this. But we're not going to ask guys to do things they're not capable of doing. That's the bottom line."
Aside from Derek Jeter, how many Yankees can bunt anyway?
A few months ago, when bludgeoning teams with the long ball still worked for the Yankees, the idea of a power outage before October seemed unlikely. Now Girardi is faced with the unpleasant reality that maybe the Yankees aren't the AL East bully everyone believed they once were.
Given the chance to go toe-to-toe with the Orioles, it was the Yankees who flinched. David Phelps, who seemed on the verge of possibly holding on to a rotation spot, began the game in the worst way possible, digging a 4-0 hole in the first inning.
The pivotal moment, however, was Phelps falling off the mound for a balk that put runners at second and third with one out. It was classic brain freeze, the type of gaffe that can wreak havoc in such circumstances. This one helped put the Yankees on their heels almost instantly, and it took nearly seven innings to show much of a pulse.
Before the Orioles silenced it, of course, in 14 pitches. That's how quickly things can change in September, and what Baltimore did in the eighth had to look awfully familiar. The Yankees used to hammer teams like that.
Are the Orioles better? They seem to think so. And it's been working out well to this point.