By Sean McAdam
NEW YORK -- Five short days ago, the New York Yankees were riding high.
Box score Play by play
They had swatted the Minnesota Twins aside like a bothersome bug in the ALDS, then started defense of their American League pennant with a stirring comeback win on the road against the Texas Rangers.
Now, they fight for their lives Wednesday afternoon, one misstep away from having their season ended far earlier than they could have imagined.
Their 10-3 loss to Texas in Game Four of the ALCS was plenty ugly, from A.J. Burnett's three-run gopher ball to Bengie Molina in the sixth, to the nasty razzing Joe Giardi got every time one of his bullpen moves backfired, to the fans who, for the second night in a row, emptied the sterile shopping plaza in the Bronx way ahead of schedule.
They trail the Rangers 3-to-1, and frankly, are fortunate the series isn't already over. For that, they have the Rangers' bullpen to thank. Without that collapse by Texas relievers in Game One, the Yanks would have already been swept in a seven-game postseason series for the first time since the 1976 World Series.
They have been badly outplayed and outpitched the entire series. They have led for exactly 4 of the 36 innings played. They've been outscored 30-11 in the series, and since the start of Game Two that figure is 25-5.
Other than trusty Andy Pettitte, they haven't come close to a quality start in the other three games. Not that the problem lies fully with the rotation -- in the last two games alone, their relievers have combined to give up 11 runs in four innings.
When Sergio Mitre is on the mound in the ninth inning two nights in a row, that's usually not a good sign.
It's not just the pitching which has failed them. The Yankees are hitting .198 as a team in the ALCS. Three key stars -- Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira -- are all hitting .133 or lower. And Teixeira, without a hit in this series, won't get a chance to collect his first, having added injury to insult -- he suffered a severe hamstring strain and won't play again until spring training.
Girardi is likely to come under fire for his misplaced faith in Burnett. It's one thing to give him an ALCS start, thus avoiding having to pitch all of his other starters on short rest.
But sticking with Burnett into the sixth, with David Murphy on base representing the go-ahead run, was probably a bit much.
"We like the matchup, A.J. against Molina,'' said Girardi. "We did. And unfortunately, it didn't work out.''
Girardi appeared to get greedy after getting five innings from Burnett with a 3-2 lead. He had Mariano Rivera available for four or five outs, so he wanted to shorten the gap between his starter and his closer.
Then again, as unreliable as Girardi's set-up bunch has been, perhaps there wasn't much of a choice. It's not as if David Robertson or Joba Chamberlain was a lock to slam the door on a Rangers lineup that has clearly found its stroke.
And that, from the Yankees' perspective, is part of the problem. Young and largely untested, the Rangers are seemingly gaining confidence by the inning. If they're intimidated by trying to unseat the defending champs in their own ballpark, they're doing a fine job disguising it.
"They've got a great mojo going right now,'' acknowledged Lance Berkman. "They're a cohesive unit. You can tell they enjoy playing together and they're dangerous. I'm biased towards our lineup, but outside of our lineup, I feel like they've got the best lineup in the game.
"When you have to navigate that and you're not perfect, they can hurt you and they've done that the last couple of nights.''
If the Yankees have to be down and facing the golf course, they at least have CC Sabathia going Wednesday. The Yankees rode Sabathia hard last fall, all the way to World Series title No. 27, but he wasn't sharp in Game One.
At home, however, he's been virtually unbeatable. He needs to be Wednesday, or else the Yankees are going home for the winter, just a week after they seemed destined for another long postseason run.
"As I said,'' restated Girardi, "I believe in this team. We have bounced back many times this year. It's a very resilient, professional bunch and they will be ready to play and you worry about Wednesday and that's it.''
Final score and series status aside, Tuesday wasn't a good day for Girardi. Earlier in the day, the Chicago Cubs made the hiring of interim manager Mike Quade permanent, thus taking away some leverage for Girardi, whose three-year deal is up when the Yankees season is over.
The way things are going, that could come far sooner than anyone anticipated.