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10 Degrees: As heat rises, Yankees' Joe Girardi tries to avoid September meltdown

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Oh, September meltdown, you most bountiful of traditions. You show up every year like the flu, only you've no antidote. You attach yourself to teams and players, embed yourself in their DNA and turn the successful into mushy piles of catastrophe. You are a sneaky little troll. And for that we love you.

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Joe Girardi isn't arguing with only umpires. A columnist was the target of his most recent blowup. (AP)

Because you, September meltdown, help make the final month of the season crackle. The April meltdown really has little bearing, because five months remain to recover from it. May, June and July meltdowns tend to separate winners from losers, though that divide is fairly apparent at the beginning of the season anyway. The August meltdown amuses, but it is Eli to September's Peyton.

Your particular aim these past two seasons has been delicious for those outside the Northeast Corridor whose Yankees-Red Sox Schadenfreude knows no bounds. To see Boston turn in the worst collapse ever last season, and then to lace it with chicken grease and beer suds and painkiller dependency, was a stroke of wickedness of which not even the sickest mind figured you capable.

As if that weren't enough, now you've afflicted New York. Or at least that's what people in New York want to believe. On July 18, their Yankees held a 10-game lead in the American League East with a 57-34 record. That's .626 baseball – a 101-win team over a full season. Since then, they've gone 22-27. Extrapolated out over a year, that's a 72-90 squad.

Still, to compare this to the 2011 Red Sox is just a little misleading. They actually entered September with a 1½-game lead in the division, which they promptly crapped away by losing nine of their first 11 games in September. The 2012 Yankees, so far in nine September games: 4-5. For the entire month, the Red Sox strung together five losing streaks. The Yankees have suffered through one, stanching their wounds before they gush. Splitting a series against Baltimore, as they did with a 13-3 win Sunday, wasn't the desired outcome. It wasn't the worst, either.

[Tim Brown: Yankees let Orioles know they're not backing down]

Twenty-two games remain for the Yankees. With the Tampa Bay-Baltimore road swing out of the way, they've now got one of the easiest schedules in the AL. Only six of the 22 come against teams over .500. Twelve of those are at home. If they play .500 ball the rest of the way, that's 90 wins.

The exact number the Red Sox won last year.

There is enough hope in the Bronx that to assign September meltdown's illustrious name to the Yankees, despite the glory of the word MELTDOWN in all caps on the back of a New York tabloid, simply isn't fair. Yet. This is not to impugn you, September meltdown. You may indeed be infiltrating the Yankees clubhouse through …

1. Joe Girardi, whose September meltdown over the weekend followed an August meltdown, giving the Yankees manager the rare two-month meltdown streak. Bravo, Joe. Bravo.

Girardi's first meltdown was a bravura performance. When transcribed and broken into small batches, it looks like poetry, or maybe something Mick Jagger would've written when he wasn't awful.

Hey, hey, hey.
Hey!
Shut up.
I'm doing
An interview.
Do something,
Would ya?

Directed at a pestering fan in Chicago, Girardi's outburst was a public showing of the high-strung reputation he carries around the clubhouse. Getting into an alleged nose-to-nose shouting match with a New York Post columnist Saturday did little to quell his players' fears that this funk may be getting to him.

Then again, it's a Catch-22 for Girardi. Striking that happy medium between caring too much and not caring enough – the reputation Terry Francona carried and that led to his dismissal after Boston's meltdown – is damn near impossible when a team is losing. Girardi can't do anything to help Nick Swisher giving up any hopes of a Jayson Werth-level contract with a 2-for-43 slump. He can't fix Mark Teixeira's sore calf. He can't overturn Jerry Meals' incompetence.

At this point, all he can do is chill a little, cobble together some kind of a lineup and pray …

2. CC Sabathia isn't hurt, which the big man swears is the case. Not that he'd say anything if he were; Sabathia signed the biggest pitching contract in history to throw important games, and he'll do that so long as ligaments aren't snapped and muscles aren't torn.

Let's examine some facts, followed by other facts that may change your mind about the first.

Fact: Sabathia's 3.56 ERA is his worst since 2005.

Contradictory fact: Sabathia's 4.37 strikeout-to-walk ratio leads the American League and is his best since he won the AL Cy Young in 2007.

Fact: Sabathia's fastball velocity has been down all season and bottomed out the last three starts.

Contradictory fact: The last time Sabathia's fastball sat in this range was toward the end of the 2010 season, when he helped pitch the Yankees into the playoffs and they won all three games he started in the postseason.

Fact: He has given up 21 home runs already, a career high.

[Also: Nationals rookie hazing results in Bryce Harper dressing as a female gymnast]

Contradictory fact: Home run spikes often are a function of luck more than anything. Sabathia's flyball rate of 31 percent is the third lowest of his career. His home runs-per-flyball rate of 13.7 percent is nearly 5 percent higher than his career average.

Now, some of the signs aren't good. Sabathia's reliance on his changeup instead of his slider is troublesome … though Sabathia this year has thrown his slider more than ever, so maybe it's more a function of him finding equilibrium in his pitches and not an injury. At least at this point nobody is pulling a …

3. Stephen Strasburg on him and questioning his mental fortitude. Yikes.

Now, it almost certainly wasn't the intention of Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson to essentially call his star pitcher incapable of handling his impending shutdown and thus accelerating it by a game. Only that's exactly what he did.

Strasburg was angry, as he had every right to be, especially because as certain as the Nationals are this is the right way, he's well within his rights to question it because there is no right way, not with such a limited sample and such variance among deliveries and conditioning and every other factor that contributes to health among pitchers.

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Stephen Strasburg isn't thrilled with the Nationals' decision to end his season early. (Getty Images)

"I don't know if I'm ever going to accept it, to be honest," Strasburg told reporters in Washington. "It's something that I'm not happy about at all. That's not why I play the game. I play the game to be a good teammate and win. You don't grow up dreaming about playing in the big leagues to get shut down when the games start to matter."

Strasburg did admit "it's hard not to let [the shutdown talk] bother you." And yet until what ended up his last start of the season, a three-inning, five-run mess, Strasburg had been every bit the stalwart ace the Nationals expected. If it indeed had bothered him "a lot longer than" his recent starts, as he opined, this wasn't anything close to a mental issue. It was one bad start.

Oh, and for the supposed "hop" lacking on his fastball: According to data from the incomparable Brooks Baseball, Strasburg's average fastball velocity in his last start was 95.41 mph compared to 96.62 mph for the entire season. His fastball actually had more horizontal movement than usual (-5.84 inches, or inside to right-handers, vs. -4.99 inches average this year) and almost the same vertical (8.96 inches Friday to 9.27 inches the rest of the season).

In other words, even when the Marlins were tagging him, Strasburg had plenty of hop on his fastball, according to the advanced camera system that's far less fallible than the naked eye.

Oh, well. Strasburg's season is done. The Nationals still have the best record in baseball. Without him, that means for our fastball jones we'll have to tune in when …

4. Justin Verlander pitches, even if his most recent start embodied the Tigers' September meltdown thus far. Perhaps more than any team Detroit has underachieved. An Angels sweep over the weekend dropped Detroit to 73-66, and the only thing keeping the Tigers from irrelevance are the White Sox's similar foibles.

Detroit heads to Chicago for a vital four-game set, with a Verlander-Chris Sale matchup headlining the series Thursday. Verlander is coming off one of the worst stretches of his career. The Angels scored six runs in six innings off him. Two starts earlier, Kansas City tagged him for eight in 5 2/3. The last time Verlander gave up six or more earned runs twice in three starts was in July 2008. He hadn't allowed six or more runs since April 11 last season.

The last time these two teams tangled, Detroit swept the White Sox, a series that salvaged its 1-8 record in the nine other games around it. This will be their final series, and at stake could be the AL Central, the worst division in baseball this year with a -222 run differential. For those interested, the AL West is by far the best, at +241, followed by the AL East (+89), NL East (+74), NL West (-58) and NL Central (-124).

One big reason the AL Central's differential is so awful: The Cleveland Indians are an AL-worst -165, though through no fault of …

[Tim Brown: Nationals off base with Strasburg explanation]

5. Chris Perez and his gargantuan mouth. In case anyone doubted it, Perez affirmed his title of biggest enfant terrible in baseball with his rant to Foxsports.com about how Indians owner Larry Dolan is cheap and GM Chris Antonetti doesn't know what he's doing and blah-blah-blah-just-trade-me-now-please.

According to The Plain Dealer, the Indians actually toyed with designating Perez for assignment when the story popped. They thought better of it because there's a simple fact his oral diarrhea overshadows: Perez is really good. He strikes out more batters than Fernando Rodney. He walks fewer than Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. He's flyball happy, but so are Chapman and Rafael Soriano.

The biggest thing against Perez is his salary through arbitration, somewhere in the $7.5 million neighborhood. When Rodney can come out of nowhere and put up one of the great ERAs in history, and when Chapman and Kimbrel, in their early 20s, can grow into the game's two best closers, the market for a loose-lipped liability like Perez won't be nearly as robust as it ought, even if some of what he said – particularly about Dolan's skinflint budget – holds water.

At least he's playing well. About 2½ hours southeast, toward the edge of the Rust Belt …

6. Andrew McCutchen has turned mortal. He hit a home run Sunday, the Pirates' first in a week.

Seriously.

The Pirates, a team with the fourth-most home runs in the NL, went five homerless games before McCutchen popped one in the first inning. Their opponents those five games: the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, who have allowed, respectively, the second- and third-most homers in the NL, behind only Colorado, which plays half its games in outer space.

And you wonder why the Pirates, who went into the All-Star break a game ahead of Cincinnati atop the NL Central, are now in danger of not cracking .500 for the first time in two decades. After the weekend sweep by the Cubs, they have lost 25 of 39 games, including their last six one-run games.

Leading the (dis)charge is McCutchen, who on July 17 was hitting .374/.426/.657 with 22 home runs. Before his homer Sunday, his slash line since: .278/.366/.364. Ichiro and Rajai Davis had more home runs than his two. Norichika Aoki and Mark Ellis' slugging percentages were higher.

Because of his excellence beforehand, McCutchen's .341/.405/.554 line remains spectacular. He still leads the NL in hits and runs. And yet, much like his team, he looks like the marathoner in first at the 13th mile and huffing and puffing by the 20th. Between McCutchen and …

7. Matt Kemp the NL MVP tag is like a vial of ricin. Kemp was the early season favorite before an ornery hamstring sidelined him for a good portion of the first half. Even before a 3-for-26 September – which followed a nasty crash into the outfield wall, banged up Kemp's left shoulder and kept him out Saturday and Sunday – he hadn't returned to his Superman level.

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Injuries have helped slow Matt Kemp's torrid start to the season. (Getty Images)

(An aside before showing Kemp's slide: Ryan Braun is the NL MVP, right? He leads the league by five home runs, his slugging percentage of .602 is tied for first and more than 40 points ahead of the next candidate, he plays suitable-enough defense in left field and the Brewers, at 69-71, have surged to at least sniffing distance of a wild-card spot. The likelihood of the Baseball Writers Association of America crowning him with a second consecutive MVP after his positive test for testosterone during the playoffs last season is next to none – Buster Posey, at this point, is the favorite – but it's tough to argue there has been a better player in the NL than Braun.)

Between July 13 and Aug. 27, the day before his injury, Kemp was hitting .324/.370/.488. Excellent, yes. Just not the .355/.444/.719 of before his injury. Kemp homered just twice in August, and his power slump coincided with the team's descent down the NL West standings. A 7½-game lead May 27 had evaporated to a half-game by Aug. 19, since which the Dodgers have lost 12 of 19. They're 5½ games behind the Giants and trail St. Louis by 1½ for the second wild card, even though …

[Also: Rangers' rookie Jurickson Profar claims acting scared led to game-winning hit]

8. Carlos Beltran can't hit, either. Beltran, like McCutchen, whacked a homer Sunday to break a long slump. He had been hitting under .200 for the last 2½ months and under .100 over the last two weeks.

Most of all, he embodies a Cardinals team that just doesn't make any sense. St. Louis leads the NL in runs. It's second to the Nationals in run differential. While its pitching staff isn't great, it's among the top half in the league, more than good enough to win games with that offense. The trade for Edward Mujica shored up a great back end of the bullpen with Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte.

So what's wrong? The Cardinals haven't been very good in one-run games, going 17-23 after sneaking out an extra-innings win Sunday that averted a Milwaukee sweep. The offense has slumped in the second half, too. Its OPS is .745, 30 points lower than the first half, and home runs have been fewer and further between: one every 43.1 at-bats in the second half as opposed to one every 31.1 at-bats in the first half.

It's a race among the Cardinals, Tigers and Red Sox for biggest underachiever of the season, and …

9. Bobby Valentine is doing his part to ensure Boston runs away with the title. His season-long meltdown has been something to behold, like a volcano that keeps spewing toxicity with no end in sight. It's tough to tell what was a better entry into the Bobby V diary this week: His threatening-to-punch-a-radio-host/trying-to-rationalize-how-it's-OK-to-be-late/throwing-Joe Maddon-under-the-bus troika or watching Toronto sweep the Red Sox at Fenway Park to drop them to last place in the AL East and 1-7 in September.

Boston has lost 11 of 12. At 63-78, the Red Sox are on pace to go 72-90, which would be their worst record since 1966.

At this point, anything more is piling on, so it's best to pivot to the other embattled manager in the AL East and try to figure out how …

10. Joe Girardi is going to extract the Yankees from this mess in which they're battling for first place with a team that batted Wilson Betemit third Sunday.

First: Hope the pitching gets right. From Sabathia to the already-back Ivan Nova (who has been shuttled to the bullpen while Freddy Garcia remains in the rotation) to the returning-mid-month Andy Pettitte, the Yankees need more out of their starters.

Next: Health for the hitters. For Teixeira, who will undergo an MRI Monday, and for Robinson Cano, who's banged up, and for the aged Alex Rodriguez and the ageless Derek Jeter and Swisher and Curtis Granderson and every integral piece of their lineup.

Most of all: Victory by attrition. Out of the Oakland-Baltimore-Tampa Bay-Los Angeles quartet, there will be some death by cannibalism. If the Yankees can face their combined-.477-winning percentage schedule and do what they're supposed to, all this talk of a September meltdown will vanish.

Exactly like the Red Sox's was supposed to last year.

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