A new beginning for the Yankees -- or beginning of the end?

CLEVELAND -- There's at least two ways to look at just about anything, including the New York Yankees' latest loss to the Cleveland Indians, which dropped them out of the top spot in the American League East for the first time since July 2.

Wednesday's 2-1 defeat could be viewed as "the end of a pretty good run for a team that wasn't expected to be this good anyway -- nice try boys, and we'll get 'em next year."

Or, as the beginning of a 50-game season in which the Yankees are a half-game out of first place.

If you're a Yankee or just a Yankee fan, you better opt for Door No. 2.

Because if the team looks too long and hard at what happened over the past two weeks, chances are things will only get worse over the next two months.

The facts are cold, hard and ugly: On July 28, the Yankees sat atop the AL East, seven games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles. The Toronto Blue Jays were in fourth place, a game behind Baltimore and a game under .500.

In fact, the Yankees looked so good, the decision was made not to shake anything up at the trade deadline or part with any prized minor league prospects -- a decision that seemed well-founded at the time. But since then, New York has lost nine of 13 games and looks like it could have used some help.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays picked up an All-Star shortstop in his prime and a former Cy Young Award winner at the deadline. And over the same 15-day span when the Yankees were going into their tailspin, the Jays began to soar, winning 13 of 14 games and making up 8½ games in the standings. There's no longer any question about which way each of these two teams are trending.

And yet, it is important to remember there is still nearly one-third of the season left to be played. What looks like a catastrophe in mid-August can be completely forgotten by the end of September, the same way a seemingly crucial play in the third inning can become a mere footnote in the final game story.

What happens from here is totally up to the New York Yankees -- the ones in uniform, that is. Not general manager Brian Cashman and not team owner Hal Steinbrenner. For better or worse, their work is done this season. They have made their choices and will have to live with them. Now it is up to the players.

And it is also important to remember that for the first 100 games of this season, the players Cashman and Steinbrenner elected to go with were more than up to the task. Yes, the Yankees are old, and yes, it is a long season, and sure, guys get tired over the course of 162 games.

But the same is true for the Blue Jays, who have the second-oldest offense in baseball and the same 162-game schedule, against the same teams and playing under the same rules.

From this point on, the two teams are on virtually equal footing. The Blue Jays have two more wins, the Yankees one fewer loss. They are separated by a mere .003 in the standings.

So while it will no doubt be a shock for the Yankees to pick up Thursday morning's paper and see themselves looking up at another team for the first time in 41 days, they have no choice but to put that aside and start playing the kind of baseball they were two weeks ago.

Wednesday night's loss was a microcosm of the Yankees' recent tailspin: good enough starting pitching, excellent infield defense, and absolutely abysmal hitting.

CC Sabathia wasn't great -- he allowed nine hits in six innings and needed the help of two double plays and some outstanding glove work by shortstop Didi Gregorius -- but when the 35-year-old lefty holds any opponent to just two runs, the Yankees have no excuse not to win that ballgame.

The Yankees got an early home run out of Brian McCann, but couldn't come up with another timely hit all game. They had great chances to overturn a one-run lead in the seventh and eighth innings, but twice failed to get runners home from second and third. The first missed opportunity was when Gregorius popped out and Chris Young struck out in the seventh. In the eighth, the Yankees wasted a pair of one-out walks when Alex Rodriguez, whose production has fallen off drastically this month, grounded into a rally-killing double play.

And just like that, a seven-game division lead evaporated like water vapor in the desert.

"It's hard to believe," Rodriguez said. "Obviously we can’t control what [the Blue Jays] do over there, or what any team does in the American League East. We have to worry about what we do. We still have to play good baseball.”

And that has to start Thursday night in Cleveland, if only to avoid further humiliation at the hands of an inferior team. The Texas Rangers swept the Yankees, the Oakland Athletics took three of four from them in May and the Philadelphia Phillies came away with two wins at Yankee Stadium in June.

Those losses were bad enough, but a sweep by the Indians would be worse -- considering how little last-place Cleveland has to play for, and how much the Yankees have to play for.

"You’re asking me to play psychologist," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said when asked what kind of emotional effect falling out of first place might have on his team. "I don’t know. Obviously you want to be in first place. That’s the bottom line. The end date is the most important date to be there. Maybe it turns out to be a good thing. Who knows?"

Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't. The Yankees can take this final game in Cleveland -- and the three crucial ones that follow this weekend in Toronto -- and either treat them as a new beginning, or the beginning of the end.

"It's going to come down to what we do the next 50 games or whatever we've got left," Girardi said. "We knew we were in a battle before today started. We're still in it."

Now, it's up to the Yankees not to play their way out of it.