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Future still bright for Yankees as slim playoff chances slip away

NEW YORK -- If these games are all about the surprise push for a playoff spot, Sunday counts as a significant disappointment for the New York Yankees.

With a chance to pull within 1 1/2 games of the final playoff spot in the American League, the Yankees instead fell to 3 1/2 games out by losing 5-0 to the Baltimore Orioles. Despite an impressive weekend in which they outscored the Orioles 27-14 and seemed to expose the biggest weaknesses of the team they're chasing, the Yankees ended up gaining all of one game in the standings while watching three more days disappear from the remaining schedule.

"I'm not down," manager Joe Girardi said. "I thought we played well this weekend. If we do that, I'll take our chances."

The Yankees chances still aren't that good, in part because the Orioles are much better than they looked Friday and Saturday and in part because it's very difficult to make up ground in such a crowded race.

Regardless, in a season in which the Yankees already declared that the future is more important than the present, Sunday wasn't such a terrible day. It gave the Yankees another chance to appreciate the promise of Gary Sanchez, even though the rookie didn't hit a home run or throw out anyone trying to steal. It also gave them more reason to believe CC Sabathia can still be effective, even at 36 years old.

Sanchez had two more hits and a third at-bat that ended with a line drive to center field. Twenty-four games into his major league career, he has a .395 batting average (.405 in 22 games this season).

Girardi was especially impressed by Sanchez's eighth-inning double off Orioles reliever Tommy Hunter, which came on an 0-2 curveball after Sanchez had swung and missed at two curves and fouled off another.

"I think this kid has instincts," Girardi said. "He makes adjustments."

Sabathia has had to make big adjustments, and at times this season they've proven to be too big a challenge. He started off well but had a 6.78 ERA in 11 starts between June 22 and Aug. 17.

Now he has rebounded with back-to-back strong outings, allowing just four earned runs in 13 2/3 innings against the Seattle Mariners and Orioles. Those numbers could have been even better, but after Sabathia left a 1-0 game Sunday with two out and the bases loaded in the seventh, Adam Warren gave up a two-run single to Steve Pearce.

"You want to win games," said Sabathia, more frustrated by the two-out Nolan Reimold infield hit that eluded second baseman Starlin Castro with a weird spin.

Sabathia was part of the Yankees' most recent championship team in 2009 and has been part of eight teams that made the postseason in his 16 big league seasons. He understands the dynamics of a pennant race and made the point that the Yankees still have six games remaining against the Orioles and 14 left against the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox -- the other two teams ahead of them in the American League East.

"It's up to us," he said.

Even if the Yankees fade, the schedule ensures that many of their remaining games will have meaning -- at least to the teams they'll be facing. That might not mean much to Sabathia, but it could help the development of rookies such as Sanchez and Aaron Judge and pitchers Chad Green and Luis Cessa.

"I think when the games have meaning every day, it's very valuable," Girardi said.

Judge is learning how difficult the major leagues can be, as another hitless day Sunday dropped his average to .209 with 19 strikeouts in 43 at-bats. Sanchez is making the American League look easy, but he's learning too.

There was the at-bat off Hunter and the fourth-inning play on which Sanchez was thrown out trying to go first-to-third on Mark Teixeira's single to right. Sanchez saw that an Orioles shift meant Manny Machado would have a long run to take the throw at third base (and Yankees third-base coach Joe Espada was waving him on), but Machado got back and applied the tag.

In a scoreless game, the Yankees missed an opportunity to have two runners on with one out. Girardi said he didn't mind because he wants his team to be aggressive and because the shifting defense made it a good chance to take.

"It took a really good throw [from Pearce] and a really good play by Machado," Girardi said. "I thought [Sanchez's] thought process was pretty good because of the shift."

The Yankees' thought process this season seems to have been pretty good too because even with their strong showing this month, they've never had a good shot at the playoffs. Winning two of three this weekend helped them only slightly in that effort, with the computers at Fangraphs changing their playoff odds from 4.1 percent Friday afternoon to 5.6 percent Sunday night.

It's still a chance, and there's nothing wrong with the Yankees treating it that way and trying to win.

But even on days such as Sunday, there's no reason for them to feel down.