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In tight AL East, Yankees can't let opportunities drop

The Yankees' Garrett Jones, left, and Brett Gardner misplay a ball hit by Houston's Carlos Correa. The ball bounced all the way to the wall, allowing Correa to score. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

HOUSTON -- Brett Gardner sprinted from center. Garrett Jones ran from left. Carlos Correa's fly ball lofted in the air. Either one of the outfielders could have made the play in left center without too much trouble.

Gardner screamed, "I got it!" Jones yelled, "I got it."

Neither of them did. The both put on the brakes and the ball fell between them.

Gardner, trying to recover as the ball bounded away, kicked it to the wall. Correa motored around the bases, scoring before a throw. It was technically a double and an error, but, in reality, it was a Little League home run to tie the game in the fourth. The Yankees would go on to lose 3-1.

The play summed up the Yankees' day. It was a wasted opportunity on a wasted day.

Michael Pineda pitched a complete game, going eight innings, allowing just three runs (two earned) on seven hits and saving a depleted bullpen. He struck out eight and walked none.

The Yankees' offense could not solve Collin McHugh, only picking up one run on two hits. After his poor last outing, Pineda answered the questions on Sunday that Masahiro Tanaka failed to on Saturday.

If the Yankees had won, they would have been in first place in the AL East since the Rays lost. But look how close the AL East is?

The Rays remain in first. The Orioles were playing Sunday night with a chance to be tie Tampa. The Yankees are a half-game back. The Jays are one game behind. The Red Sox still have an outside chance at eight back. But the larger point is that this division is too tight to let winnable games slip away with unforced errors.

Sunday is one of those that Joe Girardi might think about all winter if the Yankees don't make it to the postseason.

The Yankees may have lost anyway without the Little League home run, but it looked bad. Girardi put Jones in left for the first time this year instead of right because of how much smaller it is at Minute Maid Park. Gardner admitted, as the center fielder, it his ball to catch if he calls it. Jones said he didn't want to run into Gardner so he pulled up late. They both said they couldn't hear each other, though, it didn't seem exceptionally loud.

If you look at it, the Yankees were probably better taking a loss than losing Gardner. Gardner picked up one of the Yankees' two hits, an RBI single in the third. He is now hitting .489 (22-for-45) in his last 10 games. Jones was the first player to stop Gardner in a long time.

Gardner may be getting some help soon. Jacoby Ellsbury, going on a rehab on Monday, may be back by Friday, but the Yankees haven't missed him that much. With Ellsbury, they were 22-18 with him. Without him, they are 19-17.

However, if Ellsbury can get on-base at a .412 clip and Gardner continues to hit like he has, the Yankees attack could be much improved. Still, who knows if it will be enough?

Tampa refuses to go away, even though most anticipate they will. Baltimore looks as if they are recapturing Buck Showalter's magic. Toronto can hit as well, if not better, than anyone in baseball. The Yankees? They have their strengths and might become stronger with Ellsbury this week and closer Andrew Miller probably returning at some point next month.

But they don't have the huge talent advantage like the dynasty teams did. They will need to grind to the AL East title. They need every winnable game. They let one drop on Sunday.