Maybe Bobby V was right after all

It seems inconceivable that somehow, Bobby Valentine could turn out to be right, that in some bizarre universe, the New York Yankees could suddenly morph from a team that two weeks ago was sitting 23 games over .500 and 10 games ahead of the rest of its division to one fighting for its playoff life.

Then again, it was just as inconceivable that the Yankees could take a five-run lead after the first inning of a game, and wind up losing by six.

They did that Tuesday night against the Baltimore Orioles, and who knows? Much more of this kind of play and especially this kind of pitching, and Valentine might be able to get a TV job as some kind of omniscient baseball analyst.

Oh, wait a minute …

Bobby, of course, has been there and done that, and now he's back to doing what he does best, which is agitating. He also happens to manage the Boston Red Sox, who all of a sudden aren't so far out of the AL East race as they appeared to be on July 18, when the Yankees reached their high-water mark of the season.

Since that day, the Yankees are underwater, having lost nine of their past 12 games, and whaddaya know? Now, the Orioles, winners of Tuesday night's 11-5 debacle at the Stadium, are breathing down their necks, a mere 5½ games back, and even the Red Sox are beginning to display some vital signs, trailing the field by 7½ with a third of the season still to be played.

This was a game the Yankees absolutely could not lose, not after they took a 5-0 first-inning lead, with six hits -- including Robinson Cano's two-run home run, No. 23 -- off a very shaky looking Chris Tillman.

Meanwhile, Ivan Nova, a guy who loses about as often as manager Joe Girardi publicly criticizes one of his players, needed just six pitches to subdue the Orioles in the first inning.

Well, that was as good as it got for Nova. He lost, Girardi ripped him after the game, and the next thing you expected to hear was something just as ludicrous, like A.J. Burnett was pitching a no-hitter or something.

It was that kind of a night for the Yankees, a night in which anything seemed possible, especially anything bad.

After that glorious first inning, the rest of the night was a nightmare, for Nova and the Yankees.

He allowed six hits in the second inning, four of them after he was one strike from escaping the inning unscathed, one of them a grand slam by Chris Davis. By the time it ended the Orioles had a 7-5 lead.

Asked to sum up Nova's outing, Girardi made no effort to hide his exasperation.

"Well, he had no fastball command, an inconsistent slider and an inconsistent curveball," the manager said. "He worked his tail end off after he gave up two singles in a row to get two outs and two strikes, and then threw a slider that didn't break and it just snowballed after that."

He was talking about a pitch to Mark Reynolds, which instead of getting him out of the inning wound up being ripped down the left-field line and one-hopping into the stands, scoring the Orioles' first run of the game.

Had it all stopped there, things might have been OK, but the Birds followed with two more hits and a walk before Nova hung a curveball to Davis that came down in the bullpen and gave them a 7-5 lead.

And the manager strongly implied that it was not Nova's stuff, but his temperament, that was to blame.

"It just unraveled," Girardi said. "That's something he's really been good at this year, not letting things unravel. Tonight he did, for whatever reason."

When a questioner observed that it appeared Nova had lost his focus on the mound the way he occasionally did as a rookie in 2010, Girardi snapped, "Well, he better get it back. Or it's going to happen a lot. You can't lose focus here. You're a major league pitcher and you have to be able to put things behind you. And if you make a bad pitch, you've got to be able to get the next guy out."

It may have been the most remarkable calling-out of a Yankees pitcher ever seen in the Joey Looseleafs Era, in which everyone, even the maddening Burnett and frustratingly ineffective types such as Javier Vazquez, Chad Gaudin and the just-departed Chad Qualls regularly got a dose of positive reinforcement.

There were no kid gloves for Nova on Tuesday night, except those he applied to himself.

"I feel really good," he said. "Today, I threw strikes, something I didn't do in Seattle [last time out] and I only gave up two hits. Here, I felt really good and I threw strikes but I gave up 10 hits, nine runs. That's part of the game. I just have to turn the page."

Asked for an explanation of how a pitcher could have good stuff, good location and a horrible outing, Nova shrugged. "Bad luck," he said. "It was a tough day for me. I threw a lot of good sliders, I threw some good curveballs, I broke two bats and they got base hits. It's not a good day."

It was a day in which GM Brian Cashman gave a vote of confidence to his roster by making just a minor move, trading Qualls to Pittsburgh for infielder Casey McGehee, a spare part who is needed right now due to the injuries to Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.

Otherwise, Cashman was saying he believed the team he had assembled was good enough not only to win the division, but to play deep into the postseason as currently constituted.

"Until you get what you want, which is a World Series trophy, you're never comfortable," he said before the game. "You're always looking at ways to try to improve your club. The only time that mentality stops is if you're the last team standing. Otherwise, you just weren't good enough."

Two weeks ago, it seemed like a pretty good bet the Yankees would be the last team standing, just like it looked as though they couldn't lose after one inning Tuesday night.

But now the possibility looms, however remote, that they just might not be good enough.

There's still a lot of baseball left to play and plenty of time to correct this course. Then again, that also means there's plenty of time for the Yankees to make Bobby Valentine look like a genius after all.