<
>

First Pitch: They're all must-win games now

BALTIMORE -- It was less than two weeks ago when the Yankees were able to say, "We play all the teams we need to beat, so our fate is still in our own hands."

Well, those days are rapidly coming to a close. The Yankees have three -- count 'em, three -- more chances to stay alive in the AL wild-card race, or call it a season.

That stretch begins with tonight's game against the Orioles, with their latest claimant to the title of ace, Ivan Nova, on the mound and a bullpen held together with spit and rosin dust behind him.

With their 4-2 loss Monday night to the Orioles in Game 1 of this four-game series, the Yankees dropped to three back in the wild-card race, and 1 1/2 games behind the Orioles. That means if they do anything less than take the next three games at Camden, they will leave here no better than when they arrived, and with just 15 games to go after this series, the future looks bleak.

They have had their shot, and now they are about to blow it.

We have the entire offseason to debate the how and why of it, the who should stay, who should go, and who must be brought in.

Right now, the only thing that matters is that the Yankees no longer have any room for losses, good or bad, close or one sided. There are no moral victories.

Tonight, they need Nova to pitch at least as well -- and considering how threadbare the bullpen is, at least as long -- as CC Sabathia did Monday night, and they need to hit Miguel Gonzalez a hell of a lot better than they hit Chris Tillman.

That's about as simple as I can put it. There's no more time to analyze, no more time to dissect, no point to first-guessing or second-guessing.

There's only one thing left to do, and that is win. Or go home and start thinking about next season.

After this stretch of six games -- three here against the Orioles and three more with the Red Sox at Fenway -- comes a parade of bum teams, Toronto and San Francisco and Houston, interrupted just before the end with three against Tampa Bay at home.

But unless they win here, those games are not likely to mean anything. Even now, if Tampa Bay goes 10-10 the rest of the way, the Yankees will have to go 12-6 just to keep up. Have they at any point in the season looked capable of doing that? Certainly, not since April.

But it is not April anymore. The bodies are tired and fraying. The age has caught up with them on one end, and the inexperience has caught up with them at the other. Even a contrived controversy -- Joe Girardi's first-inning flip-out over alleged sign stealing Monday night -- was met with a collective shrug in his own clubhouse.

Well, starting tonight, the Yankees have to shake off that lethargy and start winning. There are no more excuses to be made.

By Sunday night in Boston, we are likely to have the answer to how this story comes out, even if the last chapter has yet to be fully written.

Then again, we could know a lot sooner than that.

There are three games left to play here in Baltimore, a genuine head-to-head matchup with a team they are chasing, and unless the Yankees win all three, they can probably draw the curtains on this 2013 season before they even leave for Boston.

QUESTION: Do you, in your heart of hearts, believe the Yankees have any more fight left in them? Or have you seen enough to know how this movie will end? Let us know in the comments section or via my Twitter feed, @ESPNNYYankees.

UP NOW: My column on why Girardi's tantrum Monday night were the first observable cracks in the manager's usually rock-solid armor. Also the Rapid Reaction on last night's game as well as blogs on Derek Jeter's prospects of coming back from yet another ankle injury, and the rest of the never-ending injury roundup.

ON DECK: Game 2 of this series, Nova (8-4, 3.02) vs. RHP Gonzalez (9-7, 3.98), first pitch at 7:05 p.m. I'll be in the clubhouse when it opens at 3:35 with the lineups and the latest news on Jeter, David Robertson and the rest of the pinstriped walking wounded. As always, thanks for reading.