KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In the final analysis of the Yankees' 5-4 loss to the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday night, the key question is not whether Billy Butler's fly ball to left-center made it to the stands, but whether Bartolo Colon can make it to the finish line.
The "controversy" over Butler's disputed home run is a red herring that really had no bearing on the outcome of the game. The growing concern over Bartolo's sudden ineffectiveness might turn out to be a killer shark that devours the Yankees' championship hopes.
To contend, as some Yankees did, that if Butler's ball had been ruled a double rather than a home run it would have changed the final score assumes that everything that came after the questionable call by umpire Dana DeMuth would have unfolded in exactly in the same fashion.
That, of course, is hogwash. Who is to say that, with Colon struggling and forced to pitch out of the stretch with one out and a runner on second, Butler would not have scored anyway?
And it doesn't change the most difficult to swallow truth of all, that on this night, the Yankees lost -- to Bruce Chen of all pitchers -- because for the first time in a while, timely hitting took the night off. They stranded 11 baserunners and went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, including at the end of the game, when Jorge Posada took a third strike with runners at second and third.
So to blame the loss on the umpires or the ground rules or the architect who designed that silly two-level fence is not only wrong, but it ignores some pretty serious issues.
And the most serious of all involves Colon, who for the first half of the season was a revelation and for the second half has been a red flag.
Colon went five innings, allowing five runs and seven hits, including two home runs: a no-doubter of a three-run bomb by Alex Gordon that was followed, two batters later, by Butler's disputed dinger.
Earlier, Colon had given up a double off the bat of Mike Moustakas that narrowly missed being another homer. And later, a rope off the bat of Melky Cabrera that became a leadoff triple and eventually the winning run.
"He made some mistakes over the middle of the plate," Joe Girardi said. "He had that one inning, then he seemed to settle down pretty decently after that."
In fact, Colon didn't have just one bad inning. He has had a series of subpar outings that coincide roughly from early July, around the time he returned from the disabled list with a hamstring strain.
Judging by his agility fielding his position, Colon's leg seems to have healed well and his velocity remains about the same -- he hit 95 mph regularly Wednesday night -- so there is no evidence his arm is in any way unhealthy.
And yet, for the past month or so, he has been pushing into areas that his 37-year-old body has not been asked to go in quite a while. When he left the game Wednesday night, he had thrown 124 2/3 innings, more than he has in any year since his Cy Young season of 2005, when he threw more than 222 for the L.A. Angels.
You begin to wonder whether the workload is starting to get to the big man, if the sheer number of innings is beginning to wear on an arm and shoulder that have undergone several surgical procedures, including a mysterious one involving the injection of stem cells and Colon's own body fat.
"I feel very strong, mentally and physically," Colon said after the game.
But the numbers say he is not nearly the same pitcher he was earlier in the year.
His performance against the Royals was statistically his worst since July 7, when he allowed five runs to the Tampa Bay Rays in 5 2/3 innings.
But there is more to Colon's decline than simply a bad outing or two.
Using July 7 as a dividing line, it is obvious Colon has had two seasons so far. Up to that point, he was 6-3 with a 2.88 ERA. Since then, he is 2-4 with 5.13 ERA.
But wait, it gets worse. Pre July 7, he had allowed nine home runs in 84 1/3 innings. Post July 7, he has allowed six home runs in 40 1/3. In those first 84 1/3 innings, he had allowed just 71 hits; in the next 40 1/3, he has allowed 52. His strikeouts per nine innings ratio was 8.33 before July 7; it is 6.48 since.
And his WHIP, a measurement of baserunners per inning, was a tidy 1.05 before July 7. It has skyrocketed to 1.64 in the eight starts since. Clearly, he has worked under more stress since he came back, and with less effectiveness.
Girardi acknowledged Colon's durability has become a concern as the season wears on. "Obviously we're trying to take precautions and give him extra rest," he said. "That's something that we're trying to do. It's something that we look at, yes."
On most nights, the Yankees' bats might have bailed out Colon, but on this night, although they threatened Chen repeatedly and loaded the bases with one out in the ninth against closer Joakim Soria, they never were able to get the big hit to bust it open.
But then, on most nights, even the four runs they did manage to come up with would have been enough for Colon.
Not on this night, and perhaps, not for too many more.
He had gone in rapid succession from spring training curiousity to early-season phenomenon to rotation mainstay. Now, he is in danger of becoming a late-season flameout.
On Wednesday night, the pitcher who looked as if he might be able to carry the Yankees to the playoffs on the strength of his beefy right arm looked very much like a guy who would need to be carried there himself.
Derek Jeter had another four-hit night, his fifth of the season, to raise his average to .290, the highest it has been since the second game of the season. Jeter also got himself picked off first just before Curtis Granderson hit his 34th home run in the first inning, a gaffe that was potentially more damaging to the Yankees than the Butler home run call, since it cost the Yankees a key run. ... Granderson has six home runs in his past eight games. ... The Yankees remained a half-game ahead of the Boston Red Sox, who lost to the Rays, in the AL East race. ... CC Sabathia (16-7, 2.93 ERA) faces LHP Brian Duensing (8-11, 4.53) in the opener of a four-game series with the Twins in Minnesota on Thursday night, first pitch at 8:10 ET.