"I didn't expect it to be like this," said closer Mariano Rivera, who may have pitched his final game for the Yankees. "I have to give a lot of credit to the Cleveland Indians. They did a terrific job -- their pitching was tremendous. We had a lot of opportunities, and we couldn't come through."
From those early days of the campaign, change has been an imminent factor of life in the Yankees' universe. The early months were marked by substitutions of necessity, as injuries forced the organization to test its depth and promote young prospects.
Catching fire after their low point of 21-29 on May 29, the Yankees made midseason shuffles near the trade deadline to bolster what had been one of the weaker benches in recent memory, molding it into a stronger assemblage primed for October.
"We felt like we had a team that could win a championship this year," Johnny Damon said. "I thought our pitching was better, our bench was deeper. It's definitely frustrating."
But now, with Chien-Ming Wang recording just three outs in an ill-fated, hurried start, the Yankees prepare for even more sweeping alterations. Manager Joe Torre's job security is in serious doubt as the club was unsuccessful, for a third consecutive season, in moving past the first round of the playoffs.
Star third baseman Alex Rodriguez -- the probable American League Most Valuable Player -- leads a cavalcade of recognizable names and faces who may find themselves in new uniforms by the time the Yankees reconvene in February, with organizational meetings planned for the near future.
"I will tell you one thing about this team," Rodriguez said. "We left our hearts and souls out there. We can't look in the mirror and say we left anything behind. We left it all out there, and I think the city of New York, for that, should be proud."
Cleveland starter Paul Byrd kept the team from digging out of the resulting hole of Wang's poor start. New York was down after three pitches, as Grady Sizemore led off the game with a home run for Cleveland. They were never really able to get up.
Jhonny Peralta dunked a run-scoring single to center field with two outs in the first, and Wang -- struggling to find command of his trademark sinker while pitching on three days' rest for the first time in his career -- loaded the bases in the second without retiring a batter.
"I wasn't comfortable watching him," Torre said. "It just looked like his stuff was good -- just from the velocity, he looked like he was throwing the ball hard -- but he got hurt with balls up."
"He was trying to get the ball to sink, and they just laid off the one that was low enough," catcher Jorge Posada said. "When he tried to throw strikes, they were all over it."
Mike Mussina came on and got a double play, allowing Cleveland's third run to score, but he then surrendered a single to Asdrubal Cabrera that gave the Indians a 4-0 lead.
Mussina -- who was passed over to start Game 4 in favor of Wang, a 19-game winner -- worked to try to keep the game close. Cleveland touched the right-hander for two runs in the fourth inning as Victor Martinez stroked a two-run double to left, giving Cleveland a 6-1 lead.
The sellout crowd of 56,315 was out of the game early, reduced to a hush through most of the late innings. At one point, as Ron Villone worked to Travis Hafner in the sixth inning, a chant for former Yankees right fielder Paul O'Neill -- reminiscent of the final home game of 2001 -- broke out behind home plate.
Cheers erupted when Robinson Cano connected with Byrd's 77th and final pitch of the evening, slugging a solo home run to right, but crowd reaction was otherwise sparse. Byrd limited New York to two runs and eight hits in five-plus innings, walking two and striking out two.
The Yankees had another shot in the sixth against reliever Rafael Perez, as Jeter came up with runners on first and third, but the captain grounded into a 4-6-3 double play that ended with the first baseman Martinez pumping his fist, running off the field.
"We had some chances," Jeter said. "Sometimes you're going to come through, and sometimes you're not. You like those situations, but it didn't happen."
Rodriguez, in perhaps his second-to-last at-bat in a Yankees uniform, connected for a solo home run with one out in the seventh inning off Perez. Rodriguez has an opt-out clause in his contract that permits him to forfeit the final three years of his $252 million deal and become a free agent after the World Series.
Bobby Abreu hit a solo homer into the upper deck in right field -- his first career postseason homer -- with one out in the ninth inning off Indians closer Joe Borowski to make it a 6-4 game, reinvigorating the sellout crowd to don their rally caps and try to will the club back. Alas, that was as close as they would get.
In his final at-bat of a remarkable season that fizzled out -- again -- under October's bright lights, Rodriguez popped out to right field for the second out of the ninth inning. Posada, another potential free agent, struck out swinging to end New York's season as several Yankees stood at the top step of the dugout, watching the Indians celebrate on their field.
"I think you have to give the Indians a lot of credit," Posada said. "They executed and did a lot of things well. Everybody's in the same boat. It's not one person. We all lost."
The results are unacceptable to principal owner George Steinbrenner, who said in a published report that Torre was not likely to return for a 13th season as manager if the Yankees could not advance. That decision has not yet been made official, but one thing is -- the Yankees' 2007 season is complete.
"We have to accept it," Rivera said. "I don't like it at all, but we have to accept it. There's nothing we can do now. It's definitely over."