By Jason Keidel
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Doesn’t July 18 seem so long ago? The Yankees were chirping from their customary perch, needing binoculars to spot the second place team, a ten-game gap between themselves and the rest of the AL East. A loss here and there was incidental, spillage, the cost of doing baseball business.

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Until it wasn’t. They’ve gone 19-24 since, and the Orioles have crawled up the totem pole, just one game behind the Bombers after taking two out of three at Yankee Stadium over the weekend. The Rays are inching closer, too, just 2 ½ games back, taking Baltimore’s baton and beating the Yankees with it yesterday in Tampa (St. Petersburg, to be exact).

I said from the jump that the Yankees would go as far as CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte would take them. Lately, that hasn’t been very far, with Pettitte on the DL most of the year and Sabathia recently bitten by the injury bug, as well, belying the monolithic metaphors thrown his way over the years.

Hiroki Kuroda has been a lovely surprise, but he’s not carrying any club to the playoffs. Phil Hughes is a No. 3 starter, and Ivan Nova is perilously close to being a head case, telling anyone who will listen that he’s the best pitcher on the planet while doing nothing to fortify his assertion.

Some writers are even questioning their heart at the heart of their order. Robinson Cano missed a crucial grounder in the eighth inning, squeaking by his outstretched glove, dribbling into right field, allowing Ryan Roberts to scamper home.

Joe Girardi was quick to diffuse any notion that Cano ever takes a play off in the field, and Cano was seen in the trainer’s room after the game with an ice pack clamped to his hip, which could explain his apparent lethargy.

What do the Bombers have in their favor? Petttitte and Mark Teixeira are returning to the lineup. That’s about it.

“The Yankees have never lost a division after leading it by seven games!”

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True. And I used to believe in bedrock stats like that. Until 2004. A lot of folks think Curt Schilling killed the Yankees’ nimbus in 2001, when he barked about “Aura” and “Mystique” dancing at your local gentlemen’s club. In truth, he killed it with his bloody sock and the bloody choke perpetrated by Joe Torre’s Yankees three years later.

The Yankees just don’t scare anyone anymore. Now they must win with talent and temerity, just like everyone else, particularly with Hal Steinbrenner’s sudden frugality, biting chunks off their titanic payroll every year.

I got a lot of heat last week for calling A-Rod a jerk. Like all mortals, I make many mistakes, but that wasn’t one of them. The vitriolic response to my column is merely displaced anger at the Yankees’ freefall from grace and first place.

People missed the part where I said my like or dislike for A-Rod was commensurate to his ability to help the Yanks win. They also missed the part where I said he was more naturally gifted than Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, two immortals before they adopted the Bash Brothers’ blueprint for success.

And perhaps they also missed the fact that A-Rod has been with the Bombers nine years and has one World Series ring. That’s not all his fault; one bat can’t float a team for six months. (He also won an MVP with a last-place team in Texas.) And while his return yesterday was a welcome sight for both the beleaguered Bombers and their fans, it won’t make much of a difference vis-à-vis October. Pitching will carve their postseason arc.

I said in the spring the Yankees could not bring the World Series back to the Bronx. I was right then. I’m right now. Ask Tampa and Baltimore, who have no fear of pinstripes or Yankee Pride.

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Do you think the injured Yankee players will make a impact when they return to the team? Let us know below.