BOSTON -- Over the course of a baseball season, there are heartbreaking losses from time to time. But rarely are there losses as soul-crushing -- and quite possibly season-ending -- as the one the New York Yankees suffered Thursday night at Fenway Park.
This one was worse than that. This was a tear-your-heart-out-with-your-bare-hands-and-grind-it-into-the-dirt-below-your-heels kind of loss. As Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, "This one hurt."
It might have more than hurt. It might have killed.
OK, so we know no lead is ever truly safe in John Updike's "lyric little bandbox," but this one sure had the look of safety, especially since the Boston Red Sox couldn't even manage a single run Wednesday night against the Baltimore Orioles and had managed just four hits and one measly run in Thursday's first seven innings against Masahiro Tanaka.
Sure, the Red Sox had added another in the eighth courtesy of that most predictable of occurrences, a David Ortiz home run, the 537th of his career, which moved him ahead of Mickey Mantle on the all-time list.
Now, if that had been the only indignity Yankees fans were to have suffered on this night, it would have been annoying but bearable.
But things were about to get a whole lot worse.
Trying to walk the tightrope of safeguarding a three-run lead -- the score was 5-2 at the start of the ninth -- while also preserving his closer, Dellin Betances, Girardi tried to skate through the ninth inning with Tommy Layne and Blake Parker. All the while, of course, he had Betances warming up just in case, and it turned out to be the worst case. Layne struck out the leadoff hitter, but Parker's curveball grazed the helmet of pinch hitter Chris Young.
At that point, Girardi decided it was time to bring in the closer, even though it would have been his third game in a row, which is a no-no in the Girardi book of bullpen management. Even though Betances had blown the game Wednesday night, thanks to his two main bugaboos: holding runners on and fielding his position. Even though he had thrown 20 pitches on Wednesday and 16 in a successful appearance on Tuesday.
And besides, Betances has had a mediocre-to-poor September so far, pitching to a season-high ERA of 4.50 and a season-high WHIP of 1.667 in his previous six appearances this month.
If this game had been a horror movie, it would have been time to cue the foreboding music as soon as Betances began his jog from the bullpen to the mound.
Well, Betances' outing turned out to be more horrific than anyone could have imagined. He faced five batters, walked one, allowed three hits, got one out when Young made a baserunning blunder by trying to score from third on a comebacker -- there was a nerve-wracking moment when Betances, who made a crucial throwing error on Wednesday, was required to make a short flip home, which he accomplished underhand -- and went out with a bang when Hanley Ramirez turned on a 3-1 fastball clocked at 99 mph and sent it into the center-field seats for a three-run, walk-off homer in Boston's 7-5 victory.
This came on a night in which two of the clubs the Yankees are chasing for the American League wild card, the Orioles and the Detroit Tigers, had already gone down to defeat. It came against the club they are chasing, however unrealistically, for first place in the AL East. But instead of gaining ground on all three, the Yankees now find themselves five games back in the division -- when it could have been only three down -- and three back in the wild card, as the Toronto Blue Jays ran off to a 5-0 lead and beat the Los Angeles Angels.
To paraphrase the Humphrey Bogart character at the end of "Casablanca," this could be the start of a horrible weekend.
Now the Yankees face three more games against the Red Sox with a bullpen that is depleted for Friday and a rookie, Luis Cessa, starting. And who knows what the true state of Betances' psyche is -- and the level of Girardi's confidence in Betances -- for the rest of the weekend?
Girardi tried to make the case that Ramirez had swung on a 2-1 pitch, but first-base ump D.J. Reyburn ruled it a check swing, leading to Betances' ill-fated 3-1 fastball.
“I just left it up," said Betances, who blew his fifth save of the season and second since he became the closer following the deadline trades of Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller. "Obviously, I’m trying to see if I can beat him with the heater. He was right on it. That was just a bad pitch.”
To their credit, the Yankees tried to put a brave face on this one.
Chase Headley, who knocked in a run in the third inning but was thrown out at home in what turned out to be a key play in the eighth, said, "We’ve been through games like this before. A lot of the young guys maybe haven’t, but we’ll get 'em ready to go. Something we’ve done all year is bounce back. I’m very confident we’re going to come out ready to play. You never know what the result is going to be, but it won’t be because we’re not ready to go."
Headley rightly pointed out that the Yankees had chances to add to their lead several times in Thursday's game -- notably in the fifth, when they had a man at third and none out; and in the eighth, when they had runners on first and second with one out; and in the ninth, when they loaded the bases with one out. Despite collecting 14 hits on Thursday, New York went 1-for-8 with five strikeouts in those three situations and did not score after the fourth inning.
"Don’t put this one on Dellin," Headley said, perhaps a bit overgenerously. "It was a game we had in hand, and we had a chance to blow it open, and we didn’t do it."
"Through 8½, it was looking really nice," said Billy Butler, who made his Yankees-Red Sox debut and performed well with RBIs in his first two at-bats (sacrifice fly, single). "That was definitely a tough loss."
But the truth is, this one was more than tough. This one was damaging -- to Girardi, to Betances and especially to the Yankees' already slim hopes of playing baseball beyond Oct. 2.
"There's no other choice, we've got to bounce back," said Girardi.
That is, if there's any bounce left in his team after its most deflating loss of the season.