OAKLAND, Calif. — There was plenty of misery to go around for the Yankees on Wednesday night. Luis Severino could not make it out of the third inning — his shortest start of the season. Andrew McCutchen looked as lost in the outfield as Willie Mays once did here in a World Series.
And the Yankees were throttled by Mike Fiers, the journeyman right-hander who carried a shutout into the seventh inning of an 8-2 loss to the Oakland Athletics.
But this over-by-the-time-it-began defeat, which reduced the Yankees’ lead over the Athletics for the top wild-card spot to three and a half games, will be remembered largely for the ineptitude of catcher Gary Sanchez.
All the work that Sanchez did over the winter and in spring training to improve behind the plate, and all the praise Manager Aaron Boone heaped on recently him for his conditioning were rendered hollow as Sanchez repeatedly had to turn and give chase to a ball that had eluded him.
In the first inning alone, Sanchez allowed two passed balls and could not block two more wild pitches by Severino as the Athletics scored four runs — all the offense they would need.
“It was a mess,” Severino said of the first inning.
The two passed balls gave Sanchez 13 for the season, tying him for the major-league lead despite having caught just 58 games due to his spending almost all of the last two months on the disabled list.
Yankees pitchers have now thrown 37 wild pitches with Sanchez behind the plate, the seventh-most in baseball.
He is on a worse pace in both categories than he was last season, when his problems behind the plate earned him a benching a rare public calling-out from Manager Joe Girardi.
After last season, Girardi was gone — in part because the Yankees wanted a manager who could better communicate — and in came Boone, who has tossed nothing but bouquets toward Sanchez since spring training. Boone stuck with his light touch Wednesday night.
“Obviously a tough inning there,” Boone said. “The good thing is I thought he reined it in and caught well the rest of the game.”
And yes, Mrs. Lincoln might have chimed in, the rest of the play was just fine.
Boone said he would need to look at video to further evaluate whether Sanchez had set up poorly, and he praised his catcher’s work in the five days since he returned from the disabled list. But he conceded that the first inning had been jarring to watch.
“It’s tough right there to see him,” Boone said. “Especially again to see where he’s come from, and to see the work, and to see it get away from him a little bit in the first inning.”
The Yankees, who have 22 games remaining in the regular season, dropped to nine and a half games behind the Boston Red Sox in the American League East. But they could have taken a significant step toward securing home-field advantage for the wild-card game by beating the Athletics, the team they are most likely to face in that one-game playoff.
A win would have bumped the Yankees’ lead to five and a half games and also given them the tiebreaker by virtue of winning the season series. Instead, Wednesday’s result meant the teams split their six games, and the next tiebreaker is intra-division games. The Yankees own a better record in their division (34-26) than the Athletics do in theirs (30-34) but the Yankees still have 10 games remaining in the A.L. East, against the Red Sox and surging Tampa Bay Rays.
“It’s hard not to look at the standings and see how things might line up a few weeks down the road,” left fielder Brett Gardner said. “We know what that team might have.”
The Yankees seemed well-positioned to continue where they left off after their late outburst in Tuesday night’s win when Giancarlo Stanton ripped a first-inning double and Aaron Hicks and Sanchez followed by drawing two-out walks on Wednesday. That brought up the Yankees’ hottest hitter of late: Luke Voit, who had homered in three consecutive games.
But Fiers retired Voit on a grounder to third, and then settled in, allowing only one base runner until the seventh: Hicks, who had a fourth-inning single but was quickly erased when Sanchez grounded sharply into a double play.
By the time Sanchez hit a two-run homer off Fiers in the seventh inning, it was an empty shot, only closing the gap to 8-2.
If the Yankees see Fiers, who stifled them in a 4-2 win while pitching for Detroit on June 4, in the wild-card playoff, it hardly seems certain that they would send Severino — who was one of the best pitchers in baseball for the first three months of the season — to the mound.
When Severino shut out Boston for six and two-thirds innings on July 1, he was 13-2 with a 1.98 E.R.A. Since then, he is 4-5 with a 6.84 earned run average.
Severino gave up three doubles in the first inning — one of which McCutchen watched sail over his head and hit off the bottom of the wall in right field. He survived the second when Gardner leapt at the wall to steal a potential extra-base hit from Josh Phegley, but in the third he gave up a two-out, two-run broken-bat single to Stephen Piscotty, and his evening was done.
Both Severino and Sanchez said a couple of the errant pitches were mix-ups over signs, an issue that also saw them get into an argument in the dugout the last time they worked together — in a 7-6 loss to Tampa in late July.
But Sanchez said on Wednesday that, cross-ups or not, he still should have kept the pitches in front of him.
“Definitely not an easy game,” Sanchez said through an interpreter. “At the same time you’ve got to find calmness, you’ve got to find a way to get through it. You can’t let what happened before rattle your mind. You’ve still got a job to do.”
One that for many Yankees, and especially Sanchez, could be done far better.