Yankees hold deck without an ace

TORONTO -- All season long, the New York Yankees have been playing with less than a full deck.

If it wasn't Derek Jeter, it was Alex Rodriguez, and if it wasn't A-Rod, it was Curtis Granderson, and if it wasn't Grandy, it was Mark Teixeira. And for most of the season it was all four at the same time.

But now, the Yankees' lineup is about as whole as it ever will be, and what do you know, they're still not playing with a full deck.

This time, their deck lacks an ace.

It has been a season-long story with CC Sabathia, but up until two weeks ago, his vacancy at the top of the starting rotation was more than filled by Hiroki Kuroda.

Now, Kuroda can no longer be trusted either, and with just 29 games to play and 5½ games to make up just to secure the second wild-card spot, there is no longer any time for the Yankees to wait for Sabathia to come around and for Kuroda to work through what manager Joe Girardi is calling "a little bit of a funk."

Because if the Yankees' top two starters don't start pitching like it immediately, the season will be all funked up. Right now, the most reliable starter on the Yankees' staff is Ivan Nova. Think about that for a moment.

Over the course of 162 games, there will be good losses and bad losses. Wednesday night's 7-2 loss to the hopeless Toronto Blue Jays, a team so dispirited they no longer even take a full pregame batting practice, falls into another category altogether.

Unacceptable. By any standard of measure.

And the biggest reason they lost this game is because Kuroda, who has been their most reliable starter up until two weeks ago, took them out of it before he had gotten three outs.

The details are not that important, but some of them are telling. For the third straight start, Kuroda got hit hard by nearly everyone in the lineup. He allowed nine hits in five innings -- the fourth start this month in which he has allowed at least nine hits -- and was charged with five earned runs, for a total of 15 over his last 16 2/3 innings pitched.

Yeah, there is a qualifier: Two of Wednesday's runs were unearned because what should have been the last out of the first inning, a looking strikeout of J.P. Arencibia, became a rather unbelievable two-run play when Kuroda's fastball sailed past catcher Chris Stewart. A run scored from second on the passed ball, and when Stewart tried to throw out Arencibia at first, his throw hit the runner in the back, allowing Rajai Davis to come around from first.

If Kuroda had been able to hold the line there, maybe the game would have turned out differently. Same goes for third-base coach Rob Thomson, who should have held Alex Rodriguez at third in the fourth inning.

But the ifs, wouldas, couldas and shouldas really didn't matter when Kuroda served up a two-run home run ball to Edwin Encarnacion in the second, the fifth home run he has allowed in the past two games after having gone nearly two months without allowing as much as one.

"It could've been different, I suppose," said Girardi, who seems to be becoming more realistic with every soul-crushing loss. "But it happens. It's part of the game and you gotta move on, you gotta be able to overcome things."

It's tough to overcome a starting pitcher putting his team in 0-6 hole, especially one who has been as reliable as Kuroda. For a team as offensively challenged as the Yankees are most nights, it's darn near impossible.

"It's surprising," Brett Gardner said. "You're so used to him going out there and putting up zeroes and making it look so easy. But he's human."

Girardi upped Gardner, agreeing that is was "shocking" to see the change that has come over Kuroda this month.

"Because we haven't seen it all year," he said. "He's been so good. He's going through a little funk. Every player during the course of a season goes through a little funk. You hope it's not at a time when you can't afford it, but it happens."

The Yankees certainly can't afford it now. They came charging out of the Bronx having swept this same Blue Jays team in four games and climbed to within 3½ games of the wild card, only to lose four of six on the road trip and slip two more games back.

It was one thing to lose to the Tampa Bay Rays at home; the Yankees have never been able to win consistently at The Trop. But to lose two of three in Toronto, to this team, who they had beaten in 13 of their previous 15 meetings this year, looks like the end of real hope.

As Girardi said, if Sabathia and Kuroda don't turn their seasons around PDQ, beginning with Sabathia's start Friday night at the Stadium in the opener of a three-game Labor Day weekend series with the Baltimore Orioles, "It makes it really hard. It's gonna make it really, really hard. But every starter's got to pitch well throughout. And when they don't we got to be able to pick them up offensively."

Lacking Robinson Cano, the Yankees' offense certainly was not able to do that, managing just three hits off right-hander Todd Redmond, a rookie they had never seen before, in 5 2/3 innings.

And they did not help matters by running themselves out of their only real threat of the game, when Thomson chose to send the 38-year-old, gimpy Rodriguez home from second on Mark Reynolds' RBI double. A-Rod was easily thrown out at home, and instead of having runners at second and third with one out, the Yankees had to settle for two runs after Ichiro Suzuki grounded out to end the inning.

The Yankees managed just two more singles all night, and struck out an incredible 13 times in the game, including three each by A-Rod and Alfonso Soriano, and twice each by Gardner and Derek Jeter.

But the real story of the game was the continuing struggles of Kuroda, who for three straight starts now has lacked command of his slider and two-seam fastball, resulting in the kind of alarmingly solid contact that had not been seen against him earlier in the season.

"He's just making bad pitches every once in a while and they're not missing them," Stewart said. "Today, he wasn't overly bad, better today than the last couple ones. It could be mechanics. It could be that it's late in the year, his body could be getting tired, he's not able to physically repeat what he was doing early on in the year. But time is ticking away, and we really don't have much room for error at this point."

Kuroda has thrown 172 innings so far this year, far fewer than in each of his previous three seasons. He says he is healthy, but for the first time on Wednesday referred to some fatigue issues.

"The movement of my balls are not there as before," he said. "I've been hit squarely. This time of the season, you have a lot of innings thrown. There are issues that you have to figure out, but I have experienced this before. I think I'll be able to regroup."

As if he still has time. Even Girardi, as optimistic a soul as you will ever meet, seems to know there is no longer time to search for answers.

"You know, everyone always wants a reason," he said. "Sometimes there just aren't reasons."

At this point, the Yankees don't need reasons. They need to pull an ace, and they need to do it now.