NEW YORK -- If it's possible for hell to freeze over on a 95-degree day in July, then Sunday was a good time for Satan to go shopping for an overcoat.
It's hard to imagine what would have been more unlikely -- the New York Yankees sweeping three games from the Baltimore Orioles on a total of 21 singles, two doubles and nine runs, or Mariano Rivera blowing a save with one out, nobody on, and an 0-2 count on the second hitter of the ninth inning.
But in hindsight, that second strike to Nick Markakis turned out to be more than just a long foul that landed a seat or two to the wrong side of the right-field foul pole. In reality, it was an omen.
Markakis lined the next pitch into center field for a single, and two pitches later, Adam Jones belted a fastball into the left-field seats, and just like that, what looked certain to end as a Yankee victory, a series sweep over their bitter rivals for second place in the AL East and a season-high seven-game winning streak became one of the most stunning losses of the season.
It will go down in the books as a blown save and a loss for Rivera, but in reality, this loss belongs to the Yankees' offense, or lack thereof. They're the ones who failed Hiroki Kuroda again, and who sent Rivera out to pitch yet another ninth inning with absolutely no wiggle room.
Placed into that situation over and over again, sooner or later, even the greatest are going to fail.
"Whenever it happens, you're kinda shocked," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, as he does whenever Mariano blows a save, even though it has now happened 79 times in his illustrious career (75 regular season, four postseason) and 16 times since Girardi became the Yankees' manager in 2008.
Certainly, there have been bigger blown saves by Rivera -- Game 7 of the 2001 World Series comes to mind -- but this one, coming as it did at the end of what was still a very good week for the Yankees, seemed to sting more than most.
"It's difficult," Rivera said. "The way Hiroki [Kuroda] was pitching, he was doing outstanding. That would have been a good game to save, you know? I don't say the other ones were not good, but this one would have been great to save, and I didn't."
In one sense, this one was déjà vu all over again -- we saw it before at Citi Field on May 28, when Kuroda threw seven shutout innings to the Mets and handed over a 1-0 lead to the set-up man, David Robertson, and the closer. Robertson did his job but Mo did not do his, facing three batters, none of whom he retired, to blow his first save of the year after starting his final season with 18 straight saves.
But this one was also different, in that Mo came out wearing high black socks, something he never does, in a tribute to Robertson, who is hoping to be voted the final member of the AL All-Star team. It was also different in that this time, he got beat on his second-best pitch, the two-seam fastball, for Markakis' single and Jones' home run. And it was different because after it was over, Rivera took the slowest, most dejected trudge back to the dugout I have seen him take probably since that night in Phoenix almost a dozen years ago.
"It's too bad," a barely audible Rivera said after the game. "Kuroda pitched a tremendous game. We should have won that."
A win would have capped a week in which the Yankees swept four games from the Minnesota Twins, their own personal Washington Generals, and came within four strikes of turning the tables on the Orioles, who had swept them in Camden Yards last weekend.
It also would have elevated them to 10 games over .500 for the first time since June 11, when they were in second place in the AL East, just two games behind the Boston Red Sox.
Rivera was not the only reason the Yankees lost the game, and probably not even the main reason. As well as Kuroda pitched -- seven innings, just three hits, one walk and four strikeouts in having to settle for his fifth no decision of the year, five games in which the Yankees have scored a total of 11 runs -- that's how bad the offense was once again, managing to scratch across a single run against Jason Hammel in the second inning on a sacrifice fly and managing just three singles the rest of the way.
So thin is the Yankees' bench right now that Girardi was forced to use Vernon Wells as a pinch-hitter for Travis Hafner, just about the only power bat in his lineup other than Robinson Cano, and could scrounge up no one to hit for Luis Cruz in the ninth against Jim Johnson, the Orioles' shaky closer.
"We have a lot of injuries, that's the bottom line," Girardi said. "That's what we've dealt with all year, or things would probably be a little different. But it's something we've dealt with, and we've done a pretty good job with it."
The opportunities for second-guessing were rampant -- why not send Kuroda out for the eighth and use Robertson in the ninth, sparing the 43-year-old Rivera from having to pitch on one of the hottest afternoons of the year? Why not start Wells against Hammel, against whom he was hitting .353 in his career with two home runs? -- but the essential truth of the game was this:
Once again, the Yankees did not hit enough to provide Kuroda with a comfort zone or Rivera with any margin for error against a young, hungry, improving Orioles team.
The groundwork for this loss was laid well before the ninth inning; Mariano just happened to be the guy standing out there when it all came tumbling down.
So even though it may still be a shock whenever Mariano Rivera blows a save, for the Yankees to lose a game in which they score just one run is hardly a surprise.