By Ernie Palladino
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Getting themselves eliminated in the AL East race Monday night was one thing. Turning the near future of Masahiro Tanaka irrelevant was quite another.

That is the real shame in this latest, final Yankees collapse. If they could have put together the least bit of offense, the potential return of their prized Japanese import would have been greeted by more than indifferent yawns. Tanaka, it should be remembered, instantly turned into Joe Girardi’s ace the first half of the year before that right ulnar collateral ligament stretched to just short of its breaking point.

The news that Tanaka could avoid Tommy John surgery came as a relief, and the anticipation that he would pitch again this year was joyously accepted. The dream was that Tanaka would make his triumphal return in time for the last couple of weeks, a 13-game stretch where everything would come together to thrust his team into the postseason. Tanaka would be in the middle of all that with two important wins.

That’s the storybook version, anyway. The real thing looks far different. Tanaka is set to return to the rotation on Sunday, and nobody seems to care.

The drive for a division title? That went out the window, officially, with Monday’s 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay. That put them 13 1/2 games behind Baltimore with 13 to play. Then again, the odds of such successful a charge have been biblically long since the beginning of summer. Only the wildest of optimists would not have expected elimination.

The second Wild Card spot? New York is six games out with 12 games to play. With Kansas City, Seattle, Toronto and Cleveland ahead of them, it could all be over by the middle of the four-game series against the Blue Jays.

Tanaka is expected to throw 70-75 pitches this weekend, but his efforts may not matter by then. If elimination does come before Tanaka gets his chance, Girardi should give him the one start to ascertain whether he’ll need offseason surgery. But if he can survive a big-league start without pain, shut him down the rest of the year. Give him off until spring training to devote himself to resting and conditioning instead of risking re-injury in a meaningless exercise.

Just a little bit of offense would have changed everything.

Instead, exiting hero Derek Jeter suffered the indignity of sitting out a game Monday amid the second-worst slump of his career. Instead, the Yanks lost five out of six to the Orioles and Rays, scoring a total of seven runs. Instead, they dropped four of their 23 one-run losses over the last nine games.

They have wasted wonderful pitching efforts from Brandon McCarthy, Shane Greene and Chris Capuano, not to mention those of assorted bullpen arms.

Whether the numbers say it or not, it’s over. A lineup that, ironically, has hit its nadir in an altogether punchless season has turned the rest of 2014 irrelevant. In doing so, it has turned whatever Tanaka might do meaningless in terms of team achievement.

That was a difficult thing given the excitement Tanaka brought to each of his starts. But the Yankees achieved it. Aside from the medical aspect of it, Tanaka’s part of the story is finished, too.

They did what at one point in the season was considered impossible. They turned their early ace irrelevant.

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