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Yankees making the playoffs is no longer a sure thing

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BUFFALO — This was a case study of baseball as water torture. A walk. A fly ball. Another walk. Time came to a screeching halt inside Sahler Field. They ratcheted the crowd noise up a little. And then a lot.

They started playing this horrendous white-noise sound effect, and the parade of base runners continued unabated. A single. A fielding error. A pitching change.

Even all the way out here, in the western corner of New York, you could hear the murmuring and the muttering and the mumbling emanating from the southern district, and from the neighboring territories of Connecticut and Jersey. A single. A steal. Another single. Another steal.

The trickle had become a flood. The Blue Jays somehow looked like a hockey team on an endless five-on-three power play. They could do nothing wrong. The Yankees could do nothing right — nothing. Another walk. Another single. Another walk …

Grand slam.

“I couldn’t get them,” Adam Ottavino said, “to swing and miss. I’ve never had an inning like this.”

Yankees
Adam Ottavino walks off the mound.AP

Six-two up had become 12-6 down, and would become an unsettling 12-7 loss. That was your average 10-run inning right there for the Blue Jays, and it came against Chad Green and Ottavino, who are supposed to be two of the more reliable Yankees relievers and on this night looked like the Islanders goalies in Edmonton, unable to stop the fusillade.

“It’s hard to foresee an inning like that with the guys we’ve got,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Frustrating inning.”

Forget all the losses that have preceded this one: this was the Mona Lisa of misery, the Pieta of poor. This was bad baseball elevated to an art form, and it came with GM Brian Cashman in the house to get an up-close peek at the bad and the ugly, and it dropped the Yankees two full games behind the Jays for second place in the East (with the Rays, even off a loss, galloping off into the horizon like Secretariat).

And now, you can begin to think the unthinkable. Because even as the Yankees’ season has cratered, there was always solace to be taken in the fact that as long as they earned a spot in the playoffs it was still possible — likely, even — to turn the narrative around. They would get healthy, eventually. No other team in the American League scares you.

Just get in, baby.

Only the Yankees awaken this morning 21-20, No. 8 out of eight in the AL playoff race. They are only a game ahead of the Orioles and the Tigers in the loss column. They are only two ahead of the surging Mariners.

It is still difficult to imagine any of those teams figuring out a way to leapfrog the Yankees. The Tigers and Orioles combined for 222 losses last year. The Mariners lost 94. Those teams aren’t as bad this year as they were last, but even a short season can’t camouflage that they aren’t anything resembling good, either.

Of course, there is this caveat:

Neither are the Yankees.

Not now. We have proceeded well past the point where the only concern in their universe was Tampa. They handed two out of the six games to the Mets last week (and had one win absolutely gift-wrapped for them; the Mets and Yankees are a matched set right now). They just lost three out of four to the Orioles, of all teams, at Camden Yards, of all places.

And now, in the most important baseball series played in the city of Buffalo since at least 1915, the Yankees dropped Game 1 in the most deplorable fashion possible. The Jays right now are everything the Yankees aren’t: exciting, carefree, bursting with confidence, flush with swagger. They are a joy to watch.

The Yankees are not. They dare you to change the channel on them, game after game, night after night. This one lasted 4 hours and 2 minutes. It felt longer than that.

This shouldn’t matter, of course. There is no reasonable way to envision the Orioles, Tigers or Mariners hitting the tape ahead of the Yankees — and once they’re in, if their batting order fills up with healthy bodies, then all bets are off. They simply need to stop the bleeding, at a time when even Hawkeye and Trapper might have a hard time figuring out how to do that, their baseball season presently resembling meatball surgery.

“It’s part of being a pro,” Boone said. “We’ve got to get past this. We’ve got to do better but we also need the ability to move forward.”

Without looking back. Because amazingly, impossibly, there are teams gaining on them.

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