"I'm hoping," manager Joe Girardi said, "this is rock bottom."
His hope spoke for so many of the Yankees, who, buoyed just hours earlier by the return of Alex Rodriguez, instead ditched their good vibes while hurtling toward a 12-2 loss to the Orioles. Fifteen minutes into the game, they were quite completely out of it, left wondering only when this slump might end.
"It's an ugly loss, and you've just got to put this one aside," Girardi said. "Every team goes through a couple of these every year. I hope it's our last one."
It started, well, at the beginning. Thriving for years off pinpoint control, Mussina instead walked the first batter he faced, Brian Roberts, then allowed seven straight Orioles to reach base with two outs. He walked in a run, allowed some screaming line drives and gave up seven runs in all -- a season high -- though six were unearned.
His most vexing moment came six batters in, when Luke Scott hit a grounder to Jeter that could have ended the inning. It didn't. Jeter thought about tossing to second base for the force out, but instead threw high to first, drawing Jason Giambi off the bag and allowing Scott to reach.
Mussina never recovered, and left the game five batters later.
"When you walk out there and don't feel like you've ever been out there before, it really confuses you," Mussina said. "That's how I felt. I got out there and I felt like I hadn't been out there forever, and didn't really know what I was doing."
Having pitched six days before, Mussina had little reason for that foreign feeling. Yet his teammate, Rodriguez, did. Activated before the game, Rodriguez infused the Yankees' clubhouse with a bit of hope before the game. Most Valuable Players have a way of doing that. But before he could even step to the plate, the Orioles had scored seven runs, effectively knocking New York out of the game.
That Rodriguez later launched a two-run home run helped little.
And what good is the return of one superstar when another takes his perch on the bench? Jeter took Rodriguez's place on the injury report in the third inning, when Orioles starter Daniel Cabrera drilled him on the left wrist with a pitch. Leaving the game with a contusion -- X-rays were negative -- Jeter likely won't play on Wednesday.
Or perhaps Thursday, or perhaps Friday -- though these Yankees remain rooted in the present.
"We've hit a rough stretch, but we've got a lot of games left," Jeter said. "We need to play better. We need to pitch, hit and play better defense. We need to do all of those things."
Yet how they might do so remains something of a mystery.
"Anyone who thinks that you can just flip a switch is sadly mistaken," Girardi said.
They've tried, but they still can't seem to click. And on this night, their troubles extended even beyond the norm.
Memories of Jeter's injury were still fresh in home-plate umpire Chuck Meriwether's mind in the sixth inning, when LaTroy Hawkins entered and threw a pitch toward Scott's head. Scott shouted out a few words, and Meriwether quickly ejected Hawkins, piling a little more distress on the Yankees.
"If anybody knows me, and a lot of guys around this league know me, I'm not that type of person," Hawkins said. "[Scott] thought what he wanted to think. The way it looked, he had a reason to think like that. But it wasn't intentional."
Neither were the seven runs that Mussina surrendered, and neither was the loss -- the fourth straight for the Yankees. They're now five games under .500, 7 1/2 games out of first place and facing the reality that May is already beginning to melt away.
Their attempted comeback was supposed to begin on Tuesday, or so the Yankees had hoped. Now it's been pushed to Wedneday. The Yankees can't seem to shake this.
"I expected to see a much better game tonight," Girardi said.