Every game down the stretch is crucial

Time is of the essence for Yankees

NEW YORK -- The Yankees have 41 games remaining on the regular-season schedule -- 41 games to make or break their season, ensuring that the lights are not turned out for good at Yankee Stadium on the evening of Sept. 21.

After peeling another 10 days off with a mostly fruitless road trip across the country, the players hear the ticking growing louder. The Yankees have not missed the playoffs since 1993, and with less than seven weeks remaining to play, keeping that streak alive will prove to be a more difficult task than most had anticipated.

With 28 of their remaining games against teams with winning records -- and 19 against clubs currently ahead of them (Red Sox, Rays and White Sox) -- every contest now takes on the heightened importance of a playoff game.

"We can't look for something to happen. We have to make something happen," Johnny Damon said. "We need to create our own luck. It's not going to be handed to us."

The out-of-town scoreboard is always ready in every ballpark to deliver news, good or bad, and while several Yankees admit to watching with accidental interest, the main priority remains straightening out what has misfired in their own games to create this uphill scenario.

"I don't really worry about other teams," manager Joe Girardi said. "You worry more about how your team is playing. All teams in the last month and a half are going to go through injuries. The importance is that we win games. Then we don't have to worry about other teams."

Indeed, injuries have dealt a crippling blow to this point, and not all of the holes can be plugged. Losing prominent bats like switch-hitting Jorge Posada and the normally productive Hideki Matsui has hurt, and co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner recently reminded that a rotation lacking 23-year-old phenom Joba Chamberlain and proven winner Chien-Ming Wang is down two major horses.

"I still believe that this team is good enough," Girardi said. "We have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of tough series against tough opponents the rest of the year. You can't look at it. You just have to plug away and do what you can do. If you win every game, you'll be in the playoffs."

Pitching has not even been the Yankees' most pressing concern, since they feature Mike Mussina hurling with renewal, Sidney Ponson proving effective and other contributors helping to stem the tide, though the Yankees have lost Andy Pettitte's last three starts coming into Friday's outing vs. Kansas City.

"To be quite honest, our pitching has been pretty good," Derek Jeter said. "We've had a game here or there where we haven't pitched, but our pitching staff has done a good job."

Jeter would agree, the biggest problem has been the bats, muddling through a down offensive season of his own. As a group, the Bronx Bombers have resembled their nickname too infrequently for the club's liking, with several major outages dotting the order.

Most prominently, New York's hitting with runners in scoring position has been absent in great samples -- the Yankees had 17 hits in 80 such at-bats during the 10-game road trip. The Yankees averaged 4.2 runs per game on the road trip, but 17 of them came in their three victories.

"It was a bad trip. You can't sugarcoat it," Jeter said. "You can sit here and say, 'Well, we should have won this game,' or, 'We had an opportunity to win that game.' The bottom line is we didn't win very many games. We have to play better in all areas -- offense, defense, hitting."

Darrell Rasner, who pitched twice on the trip, said that he did not sense the Yankees were downtrodden. They'll need high spirits to pull off the challenges that await.

"It was tough, this whole road trip," Rasner said. "Each game we could have won, I think, in my opinion. There's a lot of professionals in here and the guys are still up. I think we're going to be fine."

"I still believe that this team is good enough. We have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of tough series against tough opponents the rest of the year. You can't look at it. You just have to plug away and do what you can do. If you win every game, you'll be in the playoffs."
-- Yankees manager Joe Girardi

Girardi has made efforts to shake up the order, notably sitting the long-slumping Melky Cabrera and hinting that Damon is healthy enough to play every day in center field down the stretch if need be. The Yankees' schedule will offer a chance to control destiny, forecasting pivotal meetings with both the Red Sox and the Rays, teams the Yankees must prove they can beat if October is in their future.

"It's out there for the taking," Damon said. "We've got six more with Boston, six more with Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay just had some big injuries. It's there for us to go out and play well and see what we can make of this race."

General manager Brian Cashman's July reinforcements have yielded mixed results in the two-plus weeks since Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte and Ivan Rodriguez were fitted for uniforms.

Nady has been a boon to the offense, earning selection as an American League Co-Player of the Week and batting .323 with six home runs and 17 RBIs since joining New York.

But Rodriguez, taking over catching duties from Jose Molina, has been less of an impact, including nabbing just two of the first 10 basestealers who ran on the 14-time All-Star. Marte has been a concern in the bullpen since striking out David Ortiz in his Yankees debut, especially since New York drew from a position of strength in trading the resurgent Kyle Farnsworth to the Tigers for Rodriguez.

The Yankees still have not completely plugged the eighth-inning void left by Farnsworth's departure, and Marte has been shaky in his outings, including allowing two hits in a Saturday appearance that set up the Twins' Delmon Young's game-tying three-run homer off Mariano Rivera, the closer's first blown save in 29 opportunities this season.

The outages have all burned what was a close race when the Yankees left Boston on July 27 -- that day, New York was three games behind the Rays in the AL East and two games behind the Red Sox in the AL Wild Card. Put simply, the deflating trip could not have come at a more inopportune time.

"Every game is very important to us," Damon said. "It's not just the Bostons and Tampa Bays that we're chasing right now. We're chasing a whole bunch of teams that are in the thick of things -- the White Sox, the Twins and the Rangers."

There may be some reinforcement help on the horizon, though Girardi has been cautious to remind reporters that until the player is actually in pinstripes and active, it's impossible to count on them.

Matsui, out since June 23 with a left knee injury, is scheduled to begin playing in Minor League rehab games on Thursday for the Gulf Coast Yankees in Tampa, Fla., while hurlers Phil Hughes and Carl Pavano both continue to progress toward the big league level.

Hughes is ahead of Pavano at this point, having sat around 93 mph on the radar gun during his most recent start at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Hughes is scheduled to make at least one more Minor League start at Triple-A on Sunday before potentially joining the big league rotation during the club's series in Baltimore next weekend.

The Yankees' troubles have created a potential scenario where Pavano could be asked to pitch in meaningful games by September. That alone should serve as evidence that the Yankees' plan went awry in a season when they were forecast to again lead the Majors in runs scored while sending baseball's cathedral out with a classic fall.

"That's why you play the games," Jeter said. "You can't sit down at the beginning of the season and punch in numbers and say, 'This is what a team is supposed to do.' You have to go out there and play. I never really look at it and say, 'On paper, we'll do that.' You play the games for a reason."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.