BOSTON -- It is somehow fittingly ironic that a player who wasn't even on the Yankees' roster for the first 102 games of the season may turn out to be the one who causes their playoff run to sputter and die over the last two weeks.
When the Yankees acquired Alfonso Soriano on July 26, their season had just about bottomed out. They were just five games over .500, seven games out of first place and heading to last place in the AL East. Since then, there has been no drastic turnaround in their record -- they are 26-22 since July 26 -- but there is little doubt that Soriano's still-powerful right-handed bat has transformed their lineup on most nights, and made better hitters of Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and yes, even Robinson Cano.
In 46 games with the Yankees, Soriano has 15 home runs and 47 RBIs, not only more than any of his teammates but more than any other player in baseball. Despite being viewed as a defensive liability, he has made some important and even spectacular plays in left field. And he has brought a positive presence to a clubhouse that can be ultra-conservative at best, and a bit grumpy at worst.
Now, Soriano is hurting, with a sprained right thumb suffered while making a diving catch Thursday night in Baltimore. He was scratched just before game time on Saturday and it is unknown whether he will be able to play today, in a game the Yankees absolutely, positively have to win if they are to keep their flickering wild-card dreams alive.
Already, the deck is stacked against them; they are facing right-hander Clay Buchholz, who is undefeated (10-0) this season, and 2-0, with a 0.75 ERA against the Yankees. And they are starting Ivan Nova, who despite being the Yankees' most reliable starter over the past two months, has been less than stellar against Boston (2-2, 5.08 lifetime; although 2-0, 3.86 at Fenway), and is coming off a start in which he had to leave early (six innings) because of some triceps soreness that hasn't fully disappeared.
But since Soriano joined the club, the Yankees have shown they can sometimes survive sub-par starting performances with their rejuvenated lineup. If Soriano can't go today -- or for any extended period of time over these final 13 games -- the Yankees may find their lineup is no longer rejuvenated. More like regressed.
After slogging on through the loss of their captain, their everyday first baseman, and for extended periods of time, their everyday third baseman and center fielder, the Yankees may find that the loss of a midseason pickup turns out to be the one that buries their season for good.
QUESTION: If Soriano is out for any length of time, does that spell the end of the Yankees' playoff hopes?
UP NOW: My column on Joe Girardi's daily dose of bad news, as well as the Rapid Reaction from yesterday's 5-1 loss to the Red Sox.
ON DECK: The latest Most Important Game of the Year starts at 8:05 p.m. with the Yankees trying to avoid a back-breaking sweep behind Nova (8-4, 3.17), who faces a tough assignment in Buchholz (10-0, 1.61). The clubhouse opens at 4:35 and I'll have starting lineups and pregame news, including the condition of Soriano, soon afterward, so check in this afternoon. And as always, thanks for reading.