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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Yankees’ old mantra likely can’t save playoff dreams now

The way the story goes, Mariano Duncan and Derek Jeter were getting their work in before a game in the middle of the splendid baseball summer of 1996. They had become an unlikely double-play combo for the Yankees that year, Jeter the can’t-miss rookie shortstop and Duncan the journeyman second baseman playing the penultimate season of a 12-year career.

Before they headed back to the dugout, Duncan playfully asked Jeter, as he did almost every day: “We play today.”

“We win today,” Jeter replied.

“That’s it,” Duncan answered.

Soon, that mantra took root among the rest of the Yankees. By August, the slogan was on T-shirts hanging in every Yankee locker, the phonetical “Das It!” replacing the original. It was catchy. And it embodied that team, which played every inning with fervor all the way to the Canyon of Heroes.

Fun stuff.

Less fun is when that becomes not a catchy catchphrase but a requirement instead. And that’s the predicament the Yankees find themselves in now. It’s a tough assignment, but that’s where the Yankees are. They refuse to concede, and there’s no reason why they should. But the truth is they need to be perfect, or as close to perfect, as the law and the game allows.

Derek Jeter and Mariano Duncan on 1997
Derek Jeter and Mariano Duncan on the 1997 Yankees.
Charles Wenzelberg/ NY Post

And that’s a tough chore.

Everyone got a reminder of that Tuesday, when the Blue Jays clobbered them, 7-1, in front of 38,525 Yankee Stadium devotees still clinging to the hope that perfection is still attainable. It wasn’t Tuesday. The Jays looked like a team fighting and clawing for a playoff berth; the Yankees looked like a team trying to talk itself out of playing out the string.

“We didn’t take advantage of any opportunities tonight,” said second baseman Gleyber Torres, who drove in the Yankees’ only run of the night with a first-inning double. “We have to do better tomorrow night.

Giancarlo Stanton reacts after hitting into a double-play on Tuesday night.

“We still have an opportunity to do something special. We have to win.”

But so do the Jays, and it was a harsh reminder Tuesday night that Toronto — now eight games clear of the Yankees and alone in the second wild-card position — has done far more across the season’s first 151 games to make these games urgent for them and desperate for the Yankees.

The Yankees, to their credit, did not allow an 11 ¹/₂-game gap in late August to turn into a 20-game garage fire. Through Saturday they’d gone on a fine 14-6 run to chop five games off that deficit, and while they were helped along by playing some bad teams, they also swept their nemesis, the Astros, in Houston. More to the point they were playing free and easy and with blissful peace, no doubt in part because they were playing with few stakes on the table.

To appreciate how much that difference matters, it was useful to pop around the league over the weekend where the Blue Jays struggled in all three games to beat the declared-dead Red Sox while the Mariners and Rangers were getting swept by the Dodgers and Guardians, respectively. Tight baseball is either difficult baseball to watch, or delightful if it benefits you.

DJ LeMahieu reacts after he strikes out looking ending the eight inning against the Blue Jays on Tuesday.
DJ LeMahieu reacts after he strikes out looking ending the eighth inning against the Blue Jays on Tuesday.

The Yankees happily watched their competitors tense up while merrily taking two games in Pittsburgh. But then a not-so-funny thing happened.

A ball took a funny bounce off third base Sunday, costing them a game against the Pirates they couldn’t afford to lose. And then Tuesday, first of six games in 10 days against the Jays, they couldn’t hit — again — and Clarke Schmidt couldn’t keep the Jays off the board.

And the out-of-town scoreboard wasn’t much help, either. Tough night all around. Tough season all around.

“We didn’t do what we’re supposed to do,” Schmidt said of the 151-game slog that’s left the Yankees at 76-75, with a tragic number that now sits at five. “Pitching or at the plate. There are a lot of expectations that come with being a New York Yankee and it’s something we all welcome.”

Clarke Schmidt exits after a rough outing against the Blue Jays on Tuesday.
Clarke Schmidt exits after a rough outing against the Blue Jays on Tuesday.

He shook his head.

“We’re still in it,” Schmidt said. “I’m not going to say we’re not.”

He can leave that to everyone else, because if Tuesday didn’t kill them, the vital signs are officially shaky. Unless they can play-today-and-win-today for every day the rest of the way, Tuesday was the last genuine gasp. How many days till pitchers and catchers?

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