On Wednesday, July 18, the New York Yankees shut out the Toronto Blue Jays 6-01, in a rain-shortened, seven inning contest. The win, combined with the Tampa Bay Rays loss to the Cleveland Indians, put the Yankees 10 games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East and 10.5 games in front of the Rays.
Since that day, the Yankees have gone 26-29 (.473) and are in a virtual tie (.0025 separates the two teams) with the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East. Their record over the last 55 games is a bit misleading though; the Yankees have won five of their last seven and seven out of eleven to get their record that "good".
The Yankees will start off their final 16 games with a three game series against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium. Due to a rain out of the opener, the two teams will kick off the series with a day/night doubleheader on Wednesday (9/19). The Oakland A's come to town on Friday (9/21) for a three game series prior to the final road trip of the season that will take the Yankees to Minnesota for three games and then north of the border to Toronto for four more games with the Blue Jays. The final three games of the season will have a different feel then either the Yankees or the Boston Red Sox could have anticipated when the season began, with the Bosox doing their best to stay out of last place in the AL East.
Though three of the Yankees' four final opponents are in or near last place, the Yankees have had their troubles with Toronto and Minnesota, which comprises 10 of the 16 remaining games. The Yankees have won just six of 11 meetings with Toronto, and lost two out of three the last time the two teams met in August. The Blue Jays, as of this writing, are 13 games under .500 and had the majority of their rotation wiped out by injuries. Though Edwin Encarnacion is having a career year (40 HR), the Blue Jays' best hitter, Jose Bautista, was lost for the season on August 26 with a wrist injury.
The Yankees have dominated the Twins in one post-season after another over the last decade, but the teams split the a four game series the only time they met this year. That took place back in mid-April, when the Twins still had high hopes. But just like the Blue Jays in the east, the Twins have been bottom feeders in the AL Central. Their 60-87 record is actually one game better than after 147 games last year.
On the other hand, The A's are the number one AL wild card team at the moment. They swept the Yankees in a four game series (Jul 19-22) two months ago that began the Yankees' 55 game rough stretch.Though they don't have one dominant starter, Oakland has gotten outstanding starts from youngsters A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker, and Tommy Milone, and the rotation received a big boost when Brett Anderson (4-0, 1.93) returned from Tommy John surgery on August 21. Rookie Ryan Cook and veteran Grant Balfour have been tough out of the pen, with the two taking turns in the closer and set up roles.
The Yankees have dominated the Red Sox (10 wins in 15 games), including a recent series win (2 of 3 games) at Fenway Park a week ago. Boston (67-81) is nowhere near the team they usually are due to injuries (David Ortiz), trades (Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett), and chaos (Bobby Valentine). It's likely the final three games between the two teams that will have an impact on both the AL East and wild card races.
The Orioles are in the midst of a three-game winning streak as they finish a west coast swing in Seattle and will fly to Boston afterwards for three games. Baltimore then returns to Camden Yards for the final homestand with three games apiece with Toronto and Boston. The Orioles finish the season with a three game set with the Rays at the Trop in Tampa Bay.
The Orioles played the role of spoiler last season, when they took five of seven games from the Red Sox in September, and ended Boston's bid to make the playoffs. Though much of the roster has turned over for Boston, you can bet the Red Sox would like to return the favor to Baltimore this season.
Getting back to the Yankees, slumps, injuries, aging veterans, and a lack of clutch hitting have all played a part in the Yankees' metamorphosis from the runaway division leader to a team running uphill with a refrigerator on their backs. Though Mark Teixeira's balky calf will likely keep him out for another 10 days, there is some hope and improvement starting to show. It couldn't have come at a better time.
Had rain of nearly biblical proportions not fallen in New York all day on Tuesday (9/18), Andy Pettitte would have returned to the mound for the first time since June 27. That was the day Cleveland's Casey Kotchman lined a comebacker off Pettitte's left ankle that resulted in a fractured fibula. Instead, Pettitte will pitch one half of Wednesday's twinbill with Toronto.
Eduardo Nunez was banished to the minor leagues after a May 10 victory against the Rays when the 25-year old made his 4th error of the season. The Yankees decided that Nunez would benefit more from playing every day at shortstop in the minors then attempting to fill the infield utility role at the Major League level.
Since his return, Nunez has made a costly error at shortstop, but has also some made a number of fine plays while filling in for the hobbled Derek Jeter. Since returning as a September call up, Nunez has hit .294 with an .863 OPS, a home run,scored three runs, and has stolen three bases. His speed helped ignite a pair of rallies in this past Sunday's win against the Rays.
Alex Rodriguez went down on July 24 with a broken wrist, courtesy of an inside pitch from Seattle's Felix Hernandez. Since his return on September 3, A-Rod has begun driving the ball to all fields again. He has hit three home runs and driven in 11 runs, and has at least one hit (15-50 overall) in 12 of the 13 games he's played since his return. He's also swiped a pair of bases and overall the Yankees have been more aggressive on the base paths, mixing in some small ball (bunts, stolen bases, hit-and-run plays) with their home run power.
Leading the Yankees' charge to the finish is their captain, Derek Jeter, who has made himself a legitimate AL MVP candidate. Though he doesn't have gawdy numbers like Josh Hamilton or Miguel Cabrera (my choice if the MVP was selected today), Jeter is third in the league in hitting (.323), has chewed up left-handed pitching (.968 OPS), is one hit shy of breaking his own record (2009) for the oldest Yankee to reach 200 hits in a season (then- 40-year old Sam Rice holds the Major League record2), and has stayed hot in September despite a badly bruised bone in his left ankle.
The Yankees need some guys to pick up the pace though, most notably ace CC Sabathia, who has struggled with a lack of velocity and accuracy. Sabathia entered this season with a won-loss record of 59-23 (.720) since he joined the team prior to the 2009 season. The lefty insists he's healthy, but his performance would seem to indicate otherwise.
With 16 games to go, there are only 3 possible outcomes the Yankees have after letting their 10-game lead slip way : win the division, get in as a wild card and then have to beat the other wild card in a one game playoff, or miss out on everything. If the Yankees don't make the playoffs or lose in a one-game playoff, there is always the possibility that manager Joe Girardi could lose his job. Most managers don't remain managers if their team blows a 10-game lead and doesn't win the division.
1 - Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com
2 - Historical information provided by Jeff Quagliata http://twitter.com/yestoresearch) of the YES Network
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