Wild night tightens up AL wild-card race

Here are some of the position players to suit up for the Yankees in 2013: Vernon Wells, Chris Stewart, Jayson Nix, Eduardo Nunez, Austin Romine, David Adams, Zoilo Almonte, Luis Cruz, Ben Francisco, Reid Brignac, Chris Nelson, Brent Lillibridge, Alberto Gonzalez, Thomas Neal, Corban Joseph and Travis Ishikawa. (What you don't remember the two at-bats -- both strikeouts -- Ishikawa received?)

Those 16 players had combined for 1,988 plate appearances entering Wednesday's game in Baltimore, about the playing time of three full-time players. None have provided a positive offensive contribution, Nunez being the best, and he's hittng .257 with one home run. This group had combined to hit .223 with 24 home runs and 162 RBIs and on-base percentage well south of .300.

Those totals don't even include the 73 awful plate appearances Derek Jeter made or the 63 bad ones from Mark Teixeira or the 118 from Kevin Youkilis. You get the idea. This is a Yankees team that the rest of the American League should have kicked to the curb, elbowed in the stomach and then thrown into the gutter alongside the Astros and Mariners.

For much of the season, it's been a team with a $228 million payroll fielding a replacement-level lineup. Well ... replacement level plus Robinson Cano.

It's the ninth inning on Wednesday night. The Yankees had trailed 3-1 before Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez tied the game with home runs in the fifth and sixth. You can guess which guy received a loud chorus of boos as he rounded the bases.

Cano is leading off the inning. Tommy Hunter, who got the final out in the eighth, is pitching for Baltimore, the only reliever Buck Showalter has used all night. Cano eats up right-handers like Adam Richman facing a plate of pancakes. He has the sixth-best OPS against right-handers in the majors, nearly 200 points better than his mark against lefties. The game before Showalter had let Cano face righty Kevin Gausman in the eighth and Cano singled to tie a game the Yankees went on to win. Surely he wouldn't let Cano face a righty again in a key situation?

Left-handers were hitting .175 off Brian Matusz. Showalter didn't bring him -- and, no, it doesn't look like rest was an issue. Matusz had thrown 14 pitches on Tuesday, his first appearance in eight days. Troy Patton is another lefty in the pen although he hasn't been all that great against lefties this year, .275 with five home runs allowed. Still ... Tommy Hunter. Left-handed batters were slugging .527 off him before this night; he'd allowed nine home runs on the season, all to lefties. He crushes righties; he's not good versus lefties. Clear?

Cano saw two pitches. He fouled off a 95-mph fastball. Then he swatted an 88 mph changeup to center field. The Yankees would add another run when Adam Jones misplayed a catchable deep fly ball into a Granderson triple, a key run as it turned out when the Orioles scored once off Mariano Rivera in the ninth. Yankees 5, Orioles 4.

Orioles fans forced live through another ninth-inning meltdown. Yankees fans, somehow seeing their underdog team getting a game closer to the playoffs. Tommy Hunter versus Robinson Cano, a matchup that never should have happened.

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We're in the top of the 10th inning in St. Petersburg. Rays manager Joe Maddon had already run through five relievers, including closer Fernando Rodney, who had thrown 15 pitches in the ninth. Closers don't pitch two innings these days -- even Maddon, the guy all the smart kids love, doesn't buck that trend -- so Joel Peralta started the 10th. Dustin Pedroia walked. Shane Victorino sacrificed him to second, bringing up David Ortiz. You can actually argue that John Farrell should have let Victorino hit away considering (A) Victorino has been hot; and (B) Maddon would likely intentionally walk Ortiz.

Which is what he did, a predictable move since he'd already used his two best lefties in the pen, Jake McGee and Alex Torres.

Like he did in the third inning, when he walked Ortiz to load the bases to face Mike Napoli (who singled in two runs), Maddon again elected to face Napoli. He replaced the fly-balling Peralta with the ground-balling Roberto Hernandez. The right move? Overthinking it? Hernandez versus righties: .254/.281/.377; Peralta versus righties: .206/.287/.299.

Napoli walked on four pitches. Oops.

Farrell sent southpaw-swinging Mike Carp up to hit for Jonny Gomes. Hernandez has a huge platoon split -- lefties were hitting .303 and slugging .529 off him. Maddon did have one left-hander left in the pen in Cesar Ramos but he was starting to run out of relievers by now, so he stuck with Hernandez, still hoping for a double play.

Rays pitching coach Kevin Hickey visited the mound. We can assume his advice was not "Throw a first-pitch hanging slider."

Carp crushed it to dead center for a grand slam. With expanded rosters and with the depth the Red Sox have coming off their bench, it's hard to win a matchup game with them right now. Maddon tried and got burned.

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Did Showalter and Maddon make mistakes? Hey, we all second-guess when the moves don't work. The key is to second-guess before it happens. I was definitely surprised Showalter didn't bring in Matusz to face Cano; it's just not a good matchup for Hunter. Maddon had started his matchup game back in the sixth inning -- he used Wesley Wright to get Jackie Bradley Jr. to get out of a jam and then McGee got Ortiz to ground into a double play in the seventh. That kept the game close, which the Rays eventually tied in the eighth, but limited Maddon's options later in the game. I think he got a little too cute there in the 10th. He probably should have just let Peralta pitch to Ortiz. Any intentional walk helps increase the chances of a big inning. That's what happened.

This is what makes September baseball so much fun. Every move gets scrutinized. Every bad pitch that turns into a bad result gets amplified. We debate, discuss, watch the out-of-town scoreboard with intense scrutiny and suffer through the pain or revel in the joy when Robinson Cano and Mike Carp turn into heroes.

AL Wild-Card Standings

Texas 81 64 --

Tampa Bay 78 66 --

New York 78 68 1

Cleveland 77 68 1.5

Baltimore 77 68 1.5

Kansas City 77 69 2

Thursday night: Yankees at Orioles, Red Sox at Rays. Let's do it again. The five-way tie is still very much in play!