"Today's game," third baseman Alex Rodriguez said, "was devastating."
All their work of the previous nine innings, of the previous nine weeks and of the previous nine months seemed thrust into jeopardy. Not that the Yankees can't still make the playoffs -- they can -- but time is growing ever shorter. And if their fate hadn't already been sealed, then this one bouncing ball may have finished the job.
"I still don't know what happened," manager Joe Girardi said. "It was about a 10-hopper through the infield. It almost looked like our guys froze. But no way did I think that was going to win the game."
What happened, upon further review, was quite simple. With two men on base -- courtesy of reliever Damaso Marte -- and Mariano Rivera fresh into the game, Chone Figgins hit the ball in question toward the hole between first and second base.
On contact, Betemit raced toward the bag, anticipating a throw from Cano. And Rivera started toward the base as well, anticipating a throw from Betemit.
"I was going to cover first," Rivera said, "but there was nothing to cover."
Cano, meanwhile, came racing toward the ball on a diagonal line, hesitating for just a moment. Perhaps that cost the Yankees the game, or perhaps there was simply too much ground to cover. What's clear, however, is that the ball bounced far closer to Betemit than to Cano. And what's even clearer is that the Yankees couldn't afford for it to reach the outfield untouched.
"When I saw the ball, I just went right away to first base," Betemit said. "And when I saw the ball go to right field, I saw the guy score."
And he saw the Angels celebrate. He saw the Angels win.
Even so, to blame nine innings of baseball on one bouncing ball would be a bit shortsighted. The Yankees had opportunities all afternoon but simply could not convert with runners in scoring position.
In the first inning, for example, the Yankees scored two runs -- but quite easily could have scored at least two more. Bobby Abreu was on third base when Xavier Nady hit a sharp ground ball to third base, where Figgins fielded and fired home. He threw high, but Abreu tried to run around catcher Mike Napoli instead of sliding or barreling through him, and Napoli applied an awkward tag.
The next batter, Cano, hit into a double play.
In the fourth inning, the Yankees left two more runners on base -- one of them in scoring position. And then in the eighth, Napoli gunned down Rodriguez attempting to steal third base with one out.
Girardi came out to argue a close call with umpire Bill Welke to no avail. And Rodriguez defended his risky play after the game, citing the team's inability to hit with runners in scoring position as justification for taking the gamble.
"I was safe," Rodriguez said. "Bill just missed it, and he probably knows that."
Perhaps so. But the Yankees are far from safe, far from first place, and closer than ever to an early winter vacation. With a broken rotation and a slumping bullpen, the Yankees need to win every time Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina take the mound. And though Pettitte gave them a solid start on Sunday, allowing three runs over seven innings, the Yankees could not convert that into a victory.
This loss did not come so much because Angels starter Joe Saunders pitched better -- his final line was nearly identical to Pettitte's -- but more because the Angels produced hits when they needed it most.
That's why the Angels own the best record in the Major Leagues and are primed to clinch a playoff spot without much delay. And that's why they swept the Yankees at Angel Stadium for the first time since 1995, solidifying their own strong position and tossing the Yankees' playoff hopes into disarray.
One bouncing ball did not create this urgency, but weeks of mediocre baseball did. And the Yankees have now reduced their margin of error to zero. It's either win now or win never -- and at this point, even the first scenario might not be good enough.
"I'm not saying that there's plenty of time now," Girardi said. "You haven't heard me say that in awhile. We need to win games -- that's the bottom line."