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TORONTO - The questions before and after the game to New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi were littered with what-ifs. The skipper quickly deflected them with one-step-at-a-time cliches that, frankly, are quite appropriate in this tight American League East race.
In the opener of a four-game series against the woebegone Blue Jays, the Yankees did exactly nothing Thursday night. Brandon Morrow pitched seven shutout innings and the top third of Toronto's lineup did just about all of the damage as the Blue Jays cruised to a 6-0 win before 23,060 at Rogers Centre.
No reason for Girardi to be talking playoff rotations, roster decisions or catching the Texas Rangers for the best record in the American League. The Yankees have all they can handle to stay in front of the Baltimore Orioles, who were idle and pulled within a game of the lead with six games left in the season. New York is two behind Texas. This was a a clear lost opportunity for the Yankees while the Orioles were waiting to start a series tonight against the Boston Red Sox.
"We lost a game so we've got to come out and win a game [tonight]," Girardi said cryptically. "That's all it is."
This division race has been downright absurd all month. Neither the Yankees nor the Orioles led by more than one game from Sept. 3 until Monday and the Elias Sports Bureau said that's the longest September stretch that close between two teams since 1889. The Yankees had a 10-game lead in mid-July and have never blown more than a six-game lead in their history.
Ivan Nova (12-8) gave up four runs in 4? innings Thursday and pretty much assured he'll only pitch out of the bullpen in the postseason for the Yankees. No way he starts ahead of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte or Phil Hughes.
"I'm so focused on winning this division, I haven't really thought about a playoff roster," Girardi said. "I think it's too early to do that. I want everyone pitching well, and then we'll make our decisions."
Nova is making Girardi's decision easy. He gave up Brett Lawrie's two-run homer to right in the third and a two-run double to Edwin Encarnacion in the fifth. An Encarnacion grounder off Derek Lowe in the seventh plated another run. Lawrie and Colby Rasmus were both 2 for 4 with Encarnacion going 3 for 4. J.P. Arencibia's solo homer off David Aardsma in the eighth closed the scoring.
Nova didn't struggle with his control, walking only two. He simply found too much of the plate.
"I'm not pitching the way I want," said Nova, a 16-game winner last year. "I'm working on everything possible to pitch good, to throw strikes to get people out. Unfortunately this year has been really bad for me."
"He started out great [9-2], reeled off a bunch of good starts together, then he kind of went through a funk," Girardi said. "Got hurt, came back, had a good start and then a not-so-good start."
This was certainly of the not-so-good variety. In his last five outings, Nova is 1-2 with a 6.93 ERA. And that kind of pitching was no match for Morrow (9-7), who threw 96 pitches and combined with two relievers on a five-hitter. The Yankees never got a runner to third base. Robinson Cano was 3 for 4, Russell Martin was 2 for 4 and everyone else was 0 for 22.
"I didn't see us cheating on pitches," Girardi said. "We just didn't get any hits."
Morrow has a stunning 0.57 ERA this year in his nine wins - and a 6.11 mark in his other 11 outings. He has given up two earned runs or less in five of his seven starts after missing more than two months with an oblique strain.
"I've felt good since I've come back," Morrow said. "Tonight I got back a little bit better into the kind of rhythms I was earlier with all four pitches and mixing the curveball and changeup."
The series continues tonight at 7 (YES) with Kuroda (14-11) pitching for the Yankees against Toronto's Chad Jenkins (0-2). In games here Saturday and Sunday afternoon, respectively, the Yankees will start Pettitte (5-3) and Hughes (16-13).

email: mharrington@buffnews.com