BALTIMORE (AP) — Joe Girardi chewed out an umpire at Tampa Bay, was brusque with reporters after a loss to Baltimore and snapped at a heckling fan in Chicago.
Usually even keeled, the manager of the New York Yankees has been a little out of sorts lately.
His banged-up team has been wobbly, too.
Leading the AL East by 10 games on July 18, New York blew the entire bulge. Girardi held a team meeting Wednesday night and the Yankees beat Tampa Bay, taking a one-game edge over the Orioles going into a four-game series starting Thursday night at Camden Yards.
Baltimore climbed back into a tie with a 10-6 victory in the opener.
“Teams struggle at times,” Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. “It’s contagious, both in good ways and bad. We have to find ways to win, that’s the bottom line. Nothing’s changed.”
The Yankees had been all alone in first place for 84 consecutive days — their longest streak since 2004 — before the Orioles tied them for the first time this week. Tampa Bay also closed in, and remains two games behind.
New York built its big lead with home runs and solid pitching, managing to pull away despite the absence of career saves leader Mariano Rivera.
Then as injuries began to pile up, the lead started to dwindle. In the space of 47 games, the entire 10-game margin disappeared.
Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte were among the sidelined stars watching the other contenders catch up.
“There is a level of concern because you want to win this thing,” Pettitte said. “It would be great to have a 10-game lead right now, and you could rest guys up and cruise into the postseason. We’ve got a great team, great leadership, and just go out and play the games.”
Spotty pitching and a lack of clutch hitting have compounded the problems.
“We’re just not playing up to our abilities,” New York general manager Brian Cashman said. “I’m bothered by the recent struggles, but I also know that’s not what we are. We’re up to the challenge.”
After losing twice to the Rays, the Yankees avoided a sweep with a win at Tropicana Field.
“You’ve got three teams that are really grouped together,” Girardi said. “You can go back, when we talked in spring training, we thought our division was going to be extremely tough and there was going to be teams grouped together in the month of September and it was going to go down until the end.”
Some feel that maybe age — the Yankees’ list of over 30 players includes Jeter, Pettitte, Rodriguez, Teixeira, Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher — has caught up with them.
“I don’t think they’re out of gas,” Cashman said. “You have ebbs and flows. But these guys, I believe, are going to get it done for us.”
Rodriguez broke his left hand on July 24 when he was hit by a pitch from Seattle star Felix Hernandez and New York played .500 ball (18-18) without him.
New York lost speedy left fielder Brett Gardner in April and Rivera tore his ACL while shagging fly balls in May.
The Yankees have had trouble hitting with runners in scoring position for much of the season. In losing 10 of 14 before Wednesday night’s win, New York hit .198 in those situations.
The 6-4 win over Tampa Bay also ended a stretch of the Yankees having six hits or fewer in five straight games, their longest run since 1990.
“Every team goes through their slumps,” Girardi said. “When we went through one, I told you it probably would not be our last one. It seems like a couple months ago we were talking about how many days in a row we’d scored three or more runs. You just go through it. We’re still in first place, that’s the bottom line.”
Plus, there are encouraging signs for the stretch run.
Teixeira, out since Aug. 27 with a strained left calf, could return this weekend. Pettitte (broken left ankle) and Ivan Nova (right shoulder) are making progress toward rejoining the rotation.
Rodriguez drove in his first run Wednesday since returning from the disabled list on Monday, and Jeter has been a constant at the top of the lineup all season, hitting .318.
As Jeter points out, the Yankees still control their own destiny. New York plays 20 of its final 26 games against division rivals, including three more at home against Tampa Bay.
“You don’t have to look at the scoreboard,” Jeter said.
And history is on New York’s side. The 15 previous times the Yankees headed into September in first place since divisional play began in 1969, they made the playoffs.
“We intend to win the American League East,” Cashman said. “Buckle up. It’s going to be a ride here in the last month.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.