TORONTO -- If Russell Martin had gotten his wish three winters ago, he might have been wearing a chest protector in the bottom of the seventh inning on Wednesday night. The Yankees passed on his services, and so he instead was standing in the batter's box at Rogers Centre, a former Bronx Bomber and just one more threat in a Blue Jays uniform.
In a lineup stacked with power bats like those of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, it may have been the Yanks' old buddy who delivered the deciding blow in the American League East race. Martin's three-run homer off Andrew Bailey helped boost Toronto to a 4-0 victory, staking the Jays to a 3 1/2-game lead in the division. Despite the loss, the Yankees remained four games ahead of the Astros for the top AL Wild Card spot, thanks to Houston's 6-5 loss to the Angels earlier on Wednesday. New York's magic number to clinch that berth is seven.
"He's a great player on both sides of the ball," Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner said. "He has good at-bats. He might not be hitting .300 with 35 homers like all these other guys, but he's still capable of driving the ball all over the ballpark. But that wasn't what beat us. It definitely put the game further out of reach."
The Yankees have 11 games remaining, returning to New York for their final homestand. A four-game series with the White Sox is around the corner, with Chicago handing the ball to ace left-hander Chris Sale on Thursday night.
The Yankees have not turned out the lights on winning the AL East, but even manager Joe Girardi -- an eternal optimist -- acknowledged that losing two of three in Toronto made a charge to the division crown unlikely.
"It becomes really difficult," Girardi said. "You need help from the other teams, where if you're one game back in the loss column instead of three, it's a little bit different. It's difficult. It's not mathematically impossible, but it's difficult."
The Blue Jays dominated the season series against New York, winning 13 of their 19 meetings -- their most in history against the Yankees in a single season. That proved to be the difference in the race.
"We're 3 1/2 back, but we've got to go out and play well the rest of the way," third baseman Chase Headley said. "We'll see what happens with them, but the goal is to win the World Series. Regardless of how we get in, we've got a shot. It's obviously disappointing today, but we'll regroup and be ready to go tomorrow."
In this one, the Yankees got more than they had reason to expect from starter Ivan Nova, who had been removed from the rotation for performance-related reasons yet pitched scorelessly into the sixth, having been pressed back into duty by Masahiro Tanaka's right hamstring injury.
Girardi said that Nova was "tremendous," but he was unwilling to push the right-hander -- coming off Tommy John surgery -- any further. Kevin Pillar lined a run-scoring single off Caleb Cotham shortly after Nova exited, and Martin teed off on Bailey's fastball in the seventh.
For the Yankees, an engagement for Oct. 6, the date of the American League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, now appears more probable than a division title. General manager Brian Cashman said that Tanaka is the organization's first choice to pitch that game, but Girardi wasn't ready to say that the Yanks are lining Tanaka up for it yet.
"When he's ready to pitch, we're going to pitch him," Girardi said. "That's obviously something that's a thought process, but we don't have anything clinched up anyway. We have to win games, that's the most important thing."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch, on Facebook and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.