NEW YORK -- More and more, it’s looking like the last important game at Yankee Stadium will be one that doesn’t even count.
The Yankees, sparked by a Jason Giambi grand slam and a nine-run seventh inning featuring a home run from the R-rated reality show known as A-Rod, beat the Texas Rangers, 18-7, Wednesday night. It was an eye-popping offensive display, a prompt and convincing response to that noted motivational speaker Hank Steinbrenner and the kind of game that could seduce you into believing that once more, they could overcome a sluggish start to roar into the playoffs.
But then you look at what’s going down in Tampa and you realize all the Yankees really accomplished was avoiding the ignominy of a sweep at home by a fellow third-place team. Despite the rousing win, the Yankees remain 7 1/2 games out of first place, five games out of the wild card, and most importantly, third in a two-horse race between Boston and Tampa Bay, who in playing three tight games this week -- all won by the (Don’t call them Devil) Rays -- proved they have no real rivals in the division except one another.
The Yankees were shut out by the Red Sox on Wednesday, 7-0
The way the race is shaping up, one of those two will get the division, the other the wild card. The Yankees get another early vacation, having done their part by providing the field upon which home field advantage for the World Series was determined.
The All-Star Game, major league baseball’s parting gift to Yankee Stadium, could very well be the last truly significant ballgame played here before the wrecker’s ball swings in, an exhibition important only to teams likely to play in October.
Right now, that would seem to exclude the home team.
If the NHL still wants to hold a hockey game here, it certainly looks as if they can start laying the pipe any day after Sept. 21, the date of the Yankees final home game of the season, against the Baltimore Orioles.
Oh, there’s sure to be some excitement here and plenty of intrigue, between Mt. St. Hank steaming and constantly threatening to blow, and the ongoing debate over who will choose to opt-out this offseason, A-Rod or C-Rod.
But as for baseball, July 15 might turn out to be the best of it for the rest of the season -- and the remainder of this ballpark’s existence.
That is how bad things appear right now, with more than half the season gone and the Yankees no closer to the playoffs at the beginning of July than they had been at the beginning of June. They are playing better baseball than they were last month, and last year for that matter, but are gaining no ground because the teams ahead of them are simply that much better.
As General Manager Brian Cashman said, “This season’s not getting any younger.”
Neither is his team.
Between now and the All-Star break the Yankees will play nine games, six of them at home against the Red Sox and Rays. Those are make-or-break games, and by the time the league’s elite rolls into the Stadium, the Yankees playoff chances may well have rolled out.
Asked when he believed the Yankees playoff push needed to begin, Cashman said, “Yesterday.”
If you feel as if you have heard this conversation and seen this season before, you have -- in three out of the past four seasons. Last year at this time, in fact, things were even worse. After 85 games, the Yankees sat one game under .500, 10 1/2 games behind the Red Sox and the same number out of the wild card. They wound up rallying to grab the wild card.
This year, the numbers are better but the situation more dire. The fresh legs in the race this year belong to Tampa Bay. The aging Yankees, short a couple of arms in the starting rotation and a couple of bats on the bench, don’t look as if they can keep up.
With 14 teams ahead of them in home runs, these Yankees are no longer the Bronx Bombers, and with Chien-Ming Wang and Phil Hughes out with injuries, they can’t pitch much, either. Lately, Lenny Kravitz has had more hits than Derek Jeter. Joba Chamberlain has gone from bullpen savior to bullpen eater.
But the most ominous development of all is the pesky presence of the Rays, who add a hurdle these leg-weary Yankees don’t seem capable of clearing.
“Normally, this has been a two-team division for a long time,” Johnny Damon said. “But this year, the Rays are going to be tough. I think they’re going to stick around until the end.”
By the end of next week, it may not matter how long the Rays stick around, because the Yankees, along with their playoff hopes, might already have left the building.