BALTIMORE -- Over the first five months of this season, Joe Girardi had pretty much run the gamut of reasons for the continuing ineffectiveness of CC Sabathia, his one-time ace.
It was his fastball command. No, it was his arm slot. It was the fact that he wasn't built up yet. Then again, it might be the cumulative effect of all the innings he had thrown. The weather was too cool, the weather was too hot. CC was too heavy. No, he was too thin.
But now, with the number of games remaining down in the teens and the Yankees' margin of error as slim as Ichiro Suzuki, it appeared as if Girardi came up with a new one: The Baltimore Orioles were stealing signs; that was why Sabathia was having so much trouble getting anyone out.
In truth, the Yankees manager wouldn't say why he was so angry just one inning into Monday night's game against the Orioles at Camden Yards, and Sabathia didn't pitch that badly after all.
But something set Girardi off early in this game, and three hours later, when it was over and the Yankees had lost 4-2 to drop three games back in the wild-card race with 18 left to play, he was still hot and bothered about it.
"There was something I saw," he said, practically biting off the words, "and I'm just going to leave it at that."
But it was pretty obvious what Girardi thought he saw: Orioles third-base coach Bobby Dickerson stealing signs, either pitch selection or location, in the very first inning.
In fact, Girardi was so sure of what he thought he saw, he raced the full length of the Yankees dugout to let Dickerson know what he thought he saw.
And when the inning ended, he came out and engaged his Orioles counterpart, Buck Showalter, in a shouting match so incendiary it caused players from both dugouts to spill onto the field and the home plate umpire, Ed Hickox, to issue warnings to both starting pitchers.
Since the Orioles scored only one run in the inning, on a leadoff double by Nick Markakis, a sacrifice bunt by Manny Machado and a sac fly by Adam Jones, Girardi's overreaction could signify only one thing: desperation.
Or maybe panic.
"The one thing that I've done the whole time I'm here and everywhere I've been is I'm going to protect our players at all lengths," he said. "That's what I'm going to do. There was something that I saw, and I'm going to leave it at that."
And it's hard, really, to blame him, considering how badly the Yankees need to win an majority of these final games and how badly they have played in many of them.
In any event, Girardi's outburst did not fire up his team the way Ryan Dempster's drilling of Alex Rodriguez did last month in Boston; the Yankees managed just four hits in seven innings off Chris Tillman, and even after being warned to behave themselves, the Orioles still belted six more hits, including three doubles, off Sabathia.
But it was obvious that Girardi was now out of answers for his erstwhile ace, and his ballclub was rapidly running out of chances to somehow sneak into October baseball.
As Showalter said, "Geez, if we were [stealing signs], Manny wouldn't have bunted, would he?"
Not that Showalter would be above a little gamesmanship. As he added a few seconds later, "Hey, we all do that. That's why we constantly change our signs a lot and with clubs we see a lot in our division. We got two good teams and we're competing for something very special. Nobody's going to apologize for giving both our teams their best chance to win."
Even Yankees catcher Austin Romine, upon whom the alleged theft would have been perpetrated, acknowledged that "sign stealing," while technically against the rules, was a long-accepted part of the game.
"That's baseball," Romine said. "Everybody wants to steal signs. We've got to do our best to hide them."
Romine said he checked with his teammates to see if he was tipping off what Sabathia was about to throw.
"I just asked someone to go down and see if they could see my signs, and they said no," Romine said. "So I knew I was doing my job and not letting them see my signs."
It was Sabathia who was not doing his job, or at least, not doing it as well as Tillman was doing his. Although he pitched acceptably –- seven hits, four runs, three of them earned, and six strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings -- Sabathia allowed three leadoff doubles, two of which wound up scoring.
He also victimized himself by throwing away an easy forceout to second that might have been a double play, but instead became a run when Machado doubled high off the right-field wall. But the worst run of all might have been the second run he allowed in the fifth, when he was one strike from escaping with just one allowed, but surrendered an RBI single to the left-handed-hitting Markakis.
On a night in which the Yankees struck out 12 times and scored only on solo home runs by Rodriguez and Lyle Overbay, a pretty good CC wasn't nearly good enough.
"It's frustrating, but it's baseball," said Sabathia, who suffered a career-high 12th loss. He has 13 wins and a 4.82 ERA, highest on the starting staff.
"You've got to go out and try to keep the game close," Sabathia said. "He's been pitching well all year, and it's up to me to try to keep the game close and give these guys a chance to win. I made some pitches when I needed to, but not enough."
Sabathia refused to get involved in discussing the first-inning fracas, saying he was too wrapped up in pitching the game to hear anything that was being shouted on the field. He acknowledged receiving a warning from the home plate umpire, but said he had no idea what it was for.
"Obviously, somebody saw something from the dugout, and Joe felt like he needed to say something," Sabathia said.
Girardi might have seen something, all right, but it might not have been what he hinted at afterward.
What he might have seen was the rapidly approaching end of his season, and a rapidly declining starting pitcher who will be on his roster, and presumably in his rotation, for the next four seasons.
"We need to score runs," Girardi said. "If we'd a been scoring runs the way we were the last week, [Sabathia] gets a win tonight. We need all our guys to be good down the stretch."
The stretch is shortening by the day, and whether he will admit it or not, Girardi sees the finish line.
And judging by his actions Monday night, he certainly doesn't like the way it appears this race will end.