By Ken Davidoff
Jacoby Ellsbury watches one of his two solo homers in the Yankees’ 5-2 loss to the Tigers Tuesday night.
DETROIT — Now we get to see whether the Yankees have a bona fide playoff run in them.
Now, manager Joe Girardi’s group once again tests its ability to get up from a punch. With the least room for error yet.
The Yankees’ five-game winning streak ended Tuesday night with a 5-2 loss to Rick Porcello and the Tigers at Comerica Park, and in and of itself, there’s no profound shame in that. In this year of the pitcher, Porcello stands out as one of the best out there — he lowered his ERA to 3.06 — and losing pitcher Brandon McCarthy earned the right to have an off night.
What stands out for these 2014 Yankees, however, is that down days too often have snowball into periods of crisis, and that’s the pattern that needs to change.
“We’ve got to find a way to win a game [Wednesday] and stop it right now,” Girardi said after the rain-delayed, pitching-shortened game. “Obviously we’re facing a good team and a good pitcher [Wednesday], but we’ve got to get it done.”
That good pitcher would be Detroit’s David Price, the Yankees’ old friend from the left-hander’s Tampa Bay days. The Yankees (68-62), who now trail the Orioles (75-55) by seven games in the American League East, have to keep winning series in order to stay relevant, and by losing the opener, both Wednesday and Thursday become paramount.
This defeat carried symbolic meaning, as the Yankees failed to break new ground on two 2014 fronts. They could have established a new high-water mark at eight over .500, and they could have lifted their winning streak to a season-best six. They remain stuck near mediocrity, unable to leap fully into contention.
Stopping a losing streak at one has proven quite difficult for these Yankees. Since the All-Star break, they are 21-15, and just two of the first 14 losses didn’t blossom into multiple-game tumbles. Just in the second half, the Yankees have endured win-free stretches of five games, three games and a pair of two-gamers.
That reflects the Yankees’ base mediocrity, and most of all their offense’s inability to put together any sort of a roll. The revamped lineup had displayed signs of life during the five-game winning streak, scoring 20 runs in the prior three games while outlasting White Sox ace Chris Sale Sunday and pounding Kansas City ace James Shields Monday.
Against Porcello, however, only Jacoby Ellsbury shined, clobbering a pair of homers from the leadoff spot as Brett Gardner rested his right ankle. In all, even as the Yankees totaled nine hits, they clocked just three at-bats with runners in scoring position and went 0-for-3.
“It’s hard to elevate the ball [against Porcello],” Girardi said. “You’re going to see singles, and you’ve got to put together a lot of singles in the course of a game to score runs. That’s what he’s so good at, being a sinkerballer.”
If you’re thinking Girardi should keep Ellsbury batting first, well, I was, too. Ellsbury didn’t fan the flames, saying, “I don’t really feel too different” hitting first as opposed to third, and it’s accurate that this recent hot streak began while Ellsbury hit third. Besides, you know the Yankees aren’t going to lower Derek Jeter in the order this close to the captain’s retirement. Jeter picked up a pair of hits Tuesday, only one of them an infield single, giving Girardi more data to defend the status quo.
The status quo had the Yankees tied for 12th in the American League in runs scored entering Tuesday’s action, so they will have to outplay their performance with their schedule now 80 percent complete. Their starting pitchers must continue to defy reasonable expectations, and their relievers must shake off recent signs of fatigue and lock down the close leads they will be asked to protect.
“We’re a team that we play every day to win,” Brian McCann said. “We’ll show up [Wednesday] and expect to win a ballgame.”
They presumably expected to win following earlier losses this season and this half. If they can’t reverse their bad habit of snowballing, though, then they can’t expect to extend their season past 162 games.