KANSAS CITY -- Days like this don't come around very often in the baseball season, especially when there are so few days left, days when you a have a chance to gain a precious game on three of the five teams you are chasing in the wild-card hunt.
The New York Yankees found themselves staring at one of those days on Monday, but instead of gaining that game on the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals -- the team the Yankees were playing -- they wound up wasting that opportunity in the first inning of their own game.
More accurately, Michael Pineda wasted it for them.
Although the Yankees battled back from an 8-1 deficit in the eighth and ninth innings, twice bringing the tying run to the plate, they were never really able to overcome the hole that Pineda put them into by allowing three runs in the first inning of an 8-5 loss.
"It's part of baseball and there’s a lot of pitchers who are like that," Joe Girardi said. "They struggle in the first inning, and if you don't get them in the first, a lot of times you’re not gonna get him. His stuff was really good after that. It’s unfortunate."
Girardi tried to put up a smoke screen of his own, getting himself ejected by plate umpire Brian O'Nora for arguing a called strike to Didi Gregorius in what turned out to be a four-run eighth inning for the Yankees. After the game, Girardi tried to argue that there were "two different strike zones" and even cited the opinions of the Royals TV commentators to support his case.
But the fact of the matter was that the Yankees' starter took them out of this one, and by the time their offense began to claw its way back, it had neither the time nor quite the energy to get it done.
Pineda, who is quite capable of collecting 12 strikeouts and allowing 12 hits in the same game, had his typical first inning, meaning a terrible one. He allowed three runs on five hits, one of them an infield single. He did not help himself with a wild pitch, and the Royals stole two bases off him and rookie catcher Gary Sanchez. But Pineda followed that inning with five perfect innings, including seven strikeouts -- he would finish with eight overall -- before allowing singles to the first two batters he faced in the seventh and prompting Girardi to go to his increasingly unreliable middle relievers.
Tommy Layne got out the only batter he faced, but Blake Parker gave up a three-run homer to Alcides Escobar and an RBI single to Cheslor Cuthbert to give the Royals a 7-1 lead, five runs of which were charged to Pineda.
Kansas City added another on an RBI single by Eric Hosmer off Kirby Yates, and the seven-run lead was too much for the Yankees offense to overcome, despite one close call -- a sacrifice fly by Starlin Castro that Alex Gordon caught one step in front of the left field fence with two runners on -- and two opportunities for the Yankees to tie the game. But Mark Teixeira, hitting for Tyler Austin, grounded out with two runners on the end the eighth, and Castro struck out to end the game with two on in the ninth.
The kids who have been credited with changing the culture of the Yankees' clubhouse and sparking the team's often-moribund offense, particularly Sanchez, were quiet; he and Aaron Judge were 0-for-6 with a walk and five strikeouts before Sanchez singled in the ninth.
As a result, rather than gaining ground on the Orioles (who lost to the Toronto Blue Jays), the Mariners (who lost to the Texas Rangers) and the Royals (who started the night a half-game ahead of the Yankees in the race for the second AL wild-card and ended the night with a 1½-game edge), the Yankees find themselves stuck at 3½ games out and still needing to leapfrog five teams.
"I think we still have a chance," said Castro, who knocked in a run with a double that missed being a homer by about a foot in the fourth inning. "We're playing really good baseball. We almost came back in that game. We have to try to continue playing, focus and start winning games."
This would have been a good day to start implementing Castro's plan. Instead, it became a day of not only one more lost game but one huge lost opportunity.