With 40 games remaining on the schedule, that is a question the Yankees wish they could answer. Friday's loss moved them 10 1/2 games behind the division-leading Rays in the American League East and pushed them seven games out in the Wild Card with three teams to jump.
It wasn't for a lack of chances, said manager Joe Girardi.
"We had a ton of opportunities," Girardi said. "You had opportunities early, you had opportunities late. Because we don't execute, we don't win. At some point, you have to start executing on a consistent basis if you want to play in October."
Rivera recorded the first out of the ninth on a strikeout, but then allowed a double to German. Mitch Maier legged out an infield single to put runners at the corners, and Rivera -- trying to induce a ground ball to turn a double play -- bounced a 93-mph sinker, which popped past catcher Jose Molina and rolled toward the screen.
In his years of catching, coaching, broadcasting and now managing the Yankees, Girardi said with a note of exasperation that he has "never" seen Rivera throw a wild pitch in that fashion, and Rivera couldn't recall one either.
Then again, Rivera has never had this much trouble keeping games tied. The future Hall of Famer has made 20 appearances in non-save situations this season, and he has given up nine runs in 22 innings pitched in those situations. It was the eighth time he has allowed a go-ahead run.
"When I go there, I try to do my job, whether it's a save situation or tie situation," Rivera said. "It happens. I go there positive, and hopefully I'll have the opportunity again."
There was a gasp of hope in the home half of the ninth, as New York threatened against Kansas City closer Joakim Soria. That, too, was short-circuited by fundamental errors: After Wilson Betemit led off with a pinch-hit single, pinch-runner Justin Christian was picked off first.
"You just can't get picked in a situation like that," said Christian, who admitted he was thinking about stealing second base and had been too aggressive.
But that wasn't the only moment that prompted Girardi to gnash his teeth. Johnny Damon was unable to get a bunt down that would have advanced Christian before he took his ill-advised walking lead. After the baserunning gaffe, New York loaded the bases with two outs with two hits and a walk, but Jason Giambi lined out hard to center field.
"It's execution," Girardi said. "It's something that has to be done. It's something that everybody is capable of doing. When you don't do it, you lose ballgames."
It was an abrupt end to the Yankees' most promising rally of the evening, coming on a day when they made several transactions to reshape their lineup for a push at the playoffs. The same troubling outages on offense remained for the first half of the evening, as the Yankees wasted opportunities with runners in scoring position while managing only one run against Kansas City starter Gil Meche.
New York had the leadoff man on in each of the first five innings, but was unable to bring one around until the fifth. Molina opened that frame with a ground-rule double to left and chugged home on Derek Jeter's single to center. Meche scattered six hits over six innings, walking two and striking out eight.
"We had plenty of opportunities, we just never cashed in," Girardi said. "We made him work, and we made him throw a lot of pitches, but we never cashed in."
After Meche's exit, the Yankees tied it up, putting two runners aboard against left-hander Ron Mahay. Bobby Abreu greeted reliever Leo Nunez with a single to right, scoring Damon, and Alex Rodriguez lifted a deep sacrifice fly to center, pushing across New York's third run.
Andy Pettitte ran his string of consecutive starts against the Royals without a loss to 11, finishing his evening after seven innings and taken off the hook by the Yankees' two-run seventh. Ross Gload pushed the first run across with a second-inning sacrifice fly, and Kansas City tacked on two in the fifth.
After a double, walk and a sacrifice, Pettitte walked Mike Aviles intentionally to load the bases. Mark Teahen followed with a booming two-run double up the gap in left-center, but after another intentional walk, Pettitte got Billy Butler to fly out and struck out Alex Gordon swinging to end the inning.
Pettitte allowed three runs on six hits while walking four and striking out seven. It was his second straight no-decision and just his fifth of the season.
"Ain't nobody going to feel sorry for us," Pettitte said. "We've been winning for an awful long time. We've got to find a way to mentally get through this and keep battling, no matter what happens. Keep battling until they officially write us off. Hopefully, that's going to be a ways away."