Bombers bumbling into battle with Rays

NEW YORK -- In some sense, what happened Tuesday night into Wednesday morning at Yankee Stadium was just your standard-issue Yankees-Red Sox tussle, a four-plus hour roller-coaster ride disguised as a baseball game that left you shaking your head and wondering what exactly you had just witnessed and more importantly, what it all meant in the overall scheme of a baseball season.

As is often the case when these two teams meet, there was something for every taste and every story line.

There was one gutsy starting pitching performance and one lousy one, one bullpen shutdown and one bullpen meltdown, one elite closer who gave away a game and another who did his best to give it back.

There was overmanaging and micromanaging and mismanaging, of the game and of the roster, there were excuses and there were mea culpas. No fewer than three Yankees took responsibility for the 7-6 loss, and you could make the case that all of them were right.

There was the human drama of a guy who wore pie on his face Monday night wearing egg on it Wednesday morning, and if all that wasn't enough, if Joe Girardi is lucky enough to have his protest upheld by the league, we just may get to do the whole second half of the game over again sometime later this season.

But the bottom line is, this was a game the Yankees should have won but didn't, and now, instead of heading into a showdown with their real divisional rivals, the Tampa Bay Rays, beginning Wednesday, with a chance to finally pull even, the Yankees instead limp in having blown back-to-back five-run leads and having lost two of their last three games thanks to their bullpen.

And we're not talking some run-of-the-mill middle relievers here, but the cream of their pen, Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera, who once again conspired to take a winnable game and turn it into a loss.

The problem started with Chamberlain, who surrendered four runs in the eighth inning, with a big assist from Alex Rodriguez, whose bounced throw on a routine ground out started a run of four Red Sox hits that erased a 5-1 Yankee lead.

It ended with Rivera, with an even bigger assist from Marcus Thames, who dropped a pop fly in right to go from Monday night's hero to Tuesday night's goat.

In between, there was Joe Girardi lodging a protest over the Red Sox claiming an injury for starter Josh Beckett, allowing reliever Manny Delcarmen extra warmup pitches in the fifth inning; there was Girardi positioning his left fielder, Randy Winn, in shallow left in the ninth, enabling the light-hitting Jeremy Hermida to line the double over his head that made Rivera a loser, and there was Girardi having Francisco Cervelli bunt Robinson Cano from second to third in the bottom of the ninth, wasting a precious out.

The most poignant aspect of it was Thames, who won Monday night's game with a dramatic ninth-inning home run off Jonathan Papelbon, muffing Marco Scutaro's pop fly to right, breathing new life into the Red Sox in the ninth.

"I'm a major-league ballplayer. I gotta make that play,'' Thames said. "What happened [Monday] was gone and this is a new day. I made a bad error and cost the team a game tonight. It sucks.''

The most disturbing was Chamberlain's performance, who for the second time in three games came into a situation calling for a shutdown and instead had a meltdown. Sunday, it was loading the bases for Mariano, who eventually surrendered a devastating grand-slam homer. Last night, it was simply being hit hard, repeatedly, after A-Rod's error.

And the most misleading was Rivera's, who did not pitch particularly well but deserved better than what he got, which was a loss. If Thames makes the catch, he probably gets out of the inning, and if the Yankees are in a normal two-out defense, Winn probably flags down Hermida's ball.

Then again, if the Yankees hadn't chosen to send down Greg Golson in order to bring up Mark Melancon, who did not pitch, maybe Thames isn't even in the game at that point.

But the what-ifs are unimportant compared to what is, and that is the fact that right now, the Rays are coming to town and the Yankees are nowhere near the top of their game.

As well as they have played, the Yankees have not only not been able to catch Tampa Bay, they have in fact lost ground. Despite playing near-.700 ball all season, they find the Rays playing just a little bit better.

And for all the hype surrounding these bizarre, marathon contests against the Red Sox, the real divisional race is going to be between New York and Tampa.

"I'm not shocked and I'm not surprised Tampa is playing so well, because they're a very good team," Girardi said. "But it's only May and I don't think you can make too much of this series. If it's September or the last week of the season, then it's a different story. But we've still got a long ways to go.''

True enough, and thankfully, the Yankees are rid of the Red Sox until August, by which point they will either have improved enough to make themselves a factor in the division again, or fallen out of the race.

In the meantime, Tampa Bay isn't going anywhere. In fact, they're coming here, in first place in the AL East and determined to stay there.

That's a fact that all the sub-plots, side angles and red herrings of a Yankees-Red Sox series can easily obscure. Monday and Tuesday night were mere preliminaries. Wednesday starts the main event, and right now, the Yankees appear less than ready for it.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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