Yankees’ season suddenly in the danger zone

It happens this quickly, like a flash flood ruining a sunny afternoon. One day you feel invincible, bulletproof, you’re bashing baseballs all over ballyards, you’re three wins out of three playoff games, it feels like you’re just starting to feel your oats. Just getting used to the October view.

The next, you’re nine innings away from winter.

The Yankees are nine innings away from winter. They lost Wednesday night, 8-4, so they sit on the precipice of the baseball abyss, pushed there by their nemesis, the Tampa Bay Rays, nudged there by their own squandered opportunities (and, sure, prodded there a touch by a couple of umpires calls that could have gone the other way and didn’t).

Now, they hand their season to Jordan Montgomery and hope that he can channel one of the great Yankees southpaws of Octobers past — a little Andy Pettitte perhaps, a little Ron Guidry, a little Whitey Ford. Montgomery, a year back from Tommy John, given the ball to keep a few final embers of summer alive for the Yankees, and for New York City.

Getting the ball Thursday. Hoping to buy a Friday.

“That’s the nature of the postseason,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said after seeing his team fall into a 2-1 deficit in this best-of-five AL Division Series. “You’re going to have some highs and lows along the way, and bumps, and every loss hurts and stings.

“But we have a great opportunity ahead of us. We’re still in control of things. We just have to get a W [Thursday] and force this to Game 5.”

For a second straight outing Masahiro Tanaka wasn’t the equal of his postseason reputation, battered by the bottom of the Tampa lineup. For a fifth straight game Giancarlo Stanton went the distance, all but obliterating a helpless baseball before launching it a long way, and there is no doubting that he, for one, is doing whatever he can do to keep the season breathing.

But the Yankees squandered a chance to beat up on a vulnerable and suddenly wild Charlie Morton in the bottom of the third inning, stranding the bases loaded after they’d squared the game at 1-1.

Part of that, you may already know, was helped along by two borderline pitches to Luke Voit that home plate umpire Mark Carlson called strikes when going the other way would’ve forced in the go-ahead run. Instead Voit grounded out, the entire Rays dugout exhaled, and you could sense something might have been allowed to get away in that moment.

Not long after, Carlson called ball four instead of strike three on another borderline pitch, this one a Tanaka splitter to Tampa shortstop Willy Adames with Joey Wendle running on the pitch. A different call, that’s a strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out. This call allowed Kevin Keirmaier to come up with two on, none out, allowed him to drive both men in when he crushed a spinning Tanaka slider.

When that ball disappeared over the right-field fence, it seemed to take what remained of the Yankees’ spirit with it. They have fewer than 24 hours to find it again, get it back, and figure a way to do what they’ve been relentlessly unable to do for most of these past 2 ½ months: beat the Rays.

The Rays, after all, didn’t earn the No. 1 seed in a lottery. They were 40-20 for the season, which translates to 108-54 across the full 162. The Yankees spent much of the summer hurt? The Rays have a pitching chart that reads like a triage unit. And were without the services for the first part of the season of Randy Arozarena, who was down with COVID-19 for the better part of a month.

He’s better now, you may have noticed.

“We’ve made some mistakes,” Boone lamented, “and he hasn’t missed them.”

And the Yankees haven’t been able to keep up. There’s still time. There’s still season left. There’s still a chance to squeeze out a Friday night in San Diego, then you take your chances with all of the money on the table. But the urgency has to start immediately. It’s all turned upside down that quickly.

“We know what we need to do,” Stanton said. “It’s going to be a tough battle but there’s no other option. We know what’s in front of us. What’s happened has happened. We need to get some wins. It’s win now. Win or go home. It’s OK to have that back-to-the-wall mentality but you’ve got to show up. You’ve got to play out.”

Nine innings or bust, nine innings or retreat to what may well be the longest, coldest baseball winter we’ve known in a long, long time. It happens this quickly. Invincible to invisible. It happens that fast.

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