The Yankees still own first place in the AL East, so that is not their concern. The concern is a level of play that has dropped what was once a 10-game lead in mid-July to two games with 28 games remaining.
The quality of play was bad again during Sunday’s 8-3 loss. The game quickly unraveled for Phil Hughes, who allowed two home runs to Mark Reynolds, including a mammoth three-run shot with nobody out in the sixth inning.
“We need to play better baseball,” manager Joe Girardi said. “I’m asked every day what my level of concern [is]. The concern is you play better baseball not where you are in the standings because we’re still in control of our destination. The concern is we need to play better. Offensively, defensively and pitching -- all things.”
“It’s pretty simple,” Derek Jeter said. “We’re not doing a lot of the things well -- pitching, offensively and defensively. It happens to every team every year at some point of the season. We had periods where we played well and periods where we played poorly. Right now, we’re playing poorly.”
Besides losing a game in the standings to the Orioles, they are up just 3 1/2 games on the Rays, whom they visit Monday and face again at Yankee Stadium in two weeks. They have been outscored 77-57 and are hitting .226 (120-for-530) with 125 strikeouts since Aug. 15, when they had a three-game winning streak and had won seven of eight following a stretch of 12 losses in 18 games.
“All I hear is concern this, concern that,” Nick Swisher said. “Nobody’s concerned. We’re two games up. It’s the beginning of September. If you told me in spring training, I’d buy into that. So there’s no concern over here. We are disappointed and we do need to play better.”
The latest disappointing performance came after Hughes allowed two long home runs to Reynolds on consecutive at-bats.
Reynolds’ first home went to left field on a 2-2 fastball leading off the fifth to cut the Yankee lead to 2-1. An inning later, Hughes walked Nate McLouth before giving up line drive singles to Adam Jones and Matt Wieters.
Instead of sticking with his primary pitch, Hughes got ahead 0-1 with a slider but on the next pitch hung a 74-mph curveball that landed 437 feet away in the left-field bleachers.
“The wheels just came off,” Hughes said. “Everything was flat but really the two home runs to Reynolds were killer.”
“He just stopped making pitches,” Girardi said. “It looked like he was getting too much of the plate.”
Reynolds was 1-for-6 against Hughes coming into the game and by the time he came up in the sixth with two on, it seemed that Girardi would lift him. Girardi decided he did not want to mix and match with righty Cody Eppley, lefty Boone Logan and another right-handed pitcher, especially without anyone out.
“That was my decision, OK, to leave him in there,” Girardi said. “He struck him out and [had] given up a home run. Reynolds is a guy that is going to strike out his share. There are different things he can do to him. He hung a breaking ball. My other choice is bring in Eppley there and then to bring in Boonie to the left-hander. Then I got to bring in another right-hander. I felt better leaving Hughsie in against Reynolds than what I would have done after Boone. If there’s one out, it’s a different story but there was nobody out.”
Before getting to the decisive at-bat against Reynolds, Hughes looked like the pitcher who had been 6-0 with a 1.62 ERA in his previous seven home starts. It was that reason why his turn was pushed up and Hughes started strong by retiring the first eight on mostly fastballs and getting out of trouble in the fifth following Reynolds’s first home run.
Hughes and the Yankees’ could have been in worse shape if not for Chris Dickerson. Dickerson hit a two-run home run in his first at-bat of the year and then sprinted toward the center-field fence to rob Adam Jones of a two-run home run for the final out of the seventh.
Dickerson did not get a chance to continue one of the best days of his career. In the seventh against left-handed reliever Randy Wolf, Andruw Jones weakly flied out to right field with a man on first and the inning ended when Derek Jeter bounced into a double play and to essentially end any chance for a comeback.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.