The New York Yankees are dead. They are not merely tapping the bucket with their tootsies, sampling the dust with their teeth, booking refundable tickets on the Stygian Ferry. They are on Line 1 with Dr. Kevorkian asking for the soonest appointment possible, please.
Do not let Sunday arouse any feelings on the contrary. Thump the Yankees did, in their old dominant fashion, dropping 15 runs on a feeble Kansas City pitching staff. It was the most hurtful sign of life, the one where the EKG jumps for a few seconds and everything looks like it's going to be all right, only to flatline once more, and for good.
Too many factors are conspiring against the Yankees for them to continue their run of 13 consecutive postseasons, one that, coming in the American League East division, defies superlatives. Although Tampa Bay (10 games ahead of New York) and Boston (5 1/2 games up) each has its flaws, neither team goes into the last six weeks of the season with imperfections rivaling the Yankees'.
Last week, a few days before the Yanks handed out lunch boxes to fans, a man in general manager Brian Cashman's office talked about how much he enjoyed the team's giveaways.
"Yeah," Cashman said, "we've had a lot of giveaways this year."
Perhaps the double meaning didn't dawn on his guest. Anyone who has watched the Yankees this season has seen a cornucopia of meltdowns, implosions and snafus, each another layer of frustration in what was supposed to be a sweet season that turned into one of those exploding cakes.
Though nothing stung quite like Aug. 9, when the Yankees entered the seventh inning leading the Angels 3-1 and ended the afternoon with an 11-4 loss, the next day might haunt Cashman more. In the eighth inning of a game tied 3-3, Alex Rodriguez tried to steal third base on a 3-0 pitch to Xavier Nady. Of course Nady wasn't swinging, which made Mike Napoli's throw to nab Rodriguez that much easier. In the bottom of the ninth, the Angels scored and finished a three-game sweep.
Rodriguez's ill-fated decision was a product, Cashman believes, of an overeagerness borne of terrible clutch hitting. The Yankees rank 22nd in on-base-plus-slugging with runners in scoring position, a number difficult for Cashman to fathom.
"As a collective, we have been so poor in that arena," he said. "And this was a team that was supposed to be built on offense more than anything else. We've been offensively challenged."
Cashman, in his 11th season as GM, was the team's architect, though some of the bloated contracts came from George Steinbrenner's totalitarian edicts. Cashman wants to build the Yankees much like the Red Sox and Rays: through superior scouting and development supplemented – not suffocated – by free-agent signings. It's how the Yankees constructed their four-titles-in-five-years dynasty late last decade, and a philosophy from which they drifted as their payroll swelled past $200 million.
Gone, too, is the Yankees' identity. Bad guys lose their villainy when their ability to inspire fear wanes. For so long, the Yankees were beasts and menaces, the last 13 years proudly wearing bull's-eyes and eating every bullet like it was a Fruity Pebble. Now, they take solace in a schedule that has them facing the Rays and Red Sox a dozen times but offers little else in the way of hope.
Only 16 of their 38 remaining games come at Yankee Stadium. September begins with a vicious 10-game trip: to Detroit for a makeup game, to Tampa for a three-game series, more than 2,500 miles – the longest trip in the AL – to Seattle for another three and finally to Los Angeles for three more. Then it's home for series against Tampa, Chicago and Baltimore before finishing at Toronto and Boston.
And it's not as though the Yankees have fared terribly well against the Red Sox and Rays. They're 6-6 against Boston, 7-5 against Tampa Bay and sport a gaping hole if starter Joba Chamberlain – who has held those two opponents to a .148 batting average – doesn't return at full strength from his shoulder injury.
The Yankees' hallmark this season, their inconsistency, is most evident in an inability to string together long stretches of top-notch play. Their best 38-game stretch came recently, when they went 25-13. Let's assume, best-case scenario, they finish the year on such a stretch. They'll have 91 wins.
Boston would need to go 19-19 over its final 38 games to fall short of 91. The Red Sox's worst such stretch this year? Nineteen wins, 19 losses, and it happened just once.
With the Rays, a collapse that would enable the Yankees to eclipse them is simply not happening. Tampa would need to finish 15-24 over its last 39 games to lose to a 91-win New York team, and Tampa's lowest point over 39 games this season is 22-17, which sounds rather Yankee-like.
To be blunt: The Yankees are a half-game closer to second-place Boston than they are to last-place Baltimore.
So, yeah, the fork has been stuck, the crematorium is hot and the harp's a-playin', even if the Yankees' crosstown rivals can attest that leads thought insurmountable do evaporate and others have proven the same.
"Look what the Rockies did last year," Cashman said. "We can do the same thing."
Oh, let's not delay the inevitable. We oughta do this like an Irish wake. Because whatever people in Boston, or anywhere else for that matter, think about the Yankees, this much is true: When they're good, baseball benefits. Watching the Yankees the last 13 years – the first five, in particular – was a pleasure.
The games may have been long, the payrolls high, the fans full of themselves, the aura romanticized to the point of saccharinity. All of that is true. And yet imagining another decade without the Yankees being the Yankees, like the '80s, is preposterous.
So, then, for the realists out there, a toast to the Yankees and their accomplishment. They will be back. Cashman is an excellent personnel man, and not just because of his team's payroll. If he's back next season – and all indications are that he will be – this will look like a different Yankees team, a better one, no question, with so much dead wood due off the books.
Arriving at this conclusion takes time, so reticence is understood. Phil Hughes is rehabbing. So is Chamberlain. Hideki Matsui should be back soon. Same with Carl Pavano, and with him the apocalypse. Hold out on to the rest of the season as long as you want. Cashman is doing just that.
"Don't give up on us," he said. "We still have hopes. We still have dreams. We've put too much work in to just have it die right now."
Happy trails, Yankees. It won't be the same without you.
New York Mets: Yes, Monday afternoon's loss to the Pirates is the sort that will deliver awful flashbacks and light up WFAN switchboards. The Mets' bullpen blew another game in spectacular fashion, enough so that it muddies everything engendered in the six-game winning streak that preceded it. During that time, as much as the Mets showed they can mash, their starting pitching – from Johan Santana to Pedro Martinez to Oliver Perez to Mike Pelfrey and, yes, now John Maine – was near untouchable.
Raul Ibañez: Though Seattle was out of the playoff hunt in, oh, April, Ibañez didn't go anywhere before the trade deadline and saw his waiver claim expire Thursday with the Mariners not getting requisite return. Too bad. When Ibañez gets hot, he's as good as anyone. Over the last month, his .377 batting average is third in baseball, his 28 RBIs and 1.144 OPS fourth and his eight home runs eighth. He would've looked awfully nice in left field for Tampa Bay.
AL Central contenders: With Detroit and Cleveland mingling more with Kansas City, two of the year's great surprises, Chicago and Minnesota, are dueling in the tightest division race around. One day it's the White Sox in first, the next day the Twins. Their offenses, both effective, couldn't be any different: Chicago built itself around the home run, its 178 by far the most in the big leagues and more than twice that of the Twins, who instead thrive in clutch situations (.317 average with runners in scoring position, 25 points higher than the next-best team).
Philadelphia's big guns: Bad week for Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. The three combined to go 13 for 80 with two home runs, 10 RBIs and six walks against 24 strikeouts. Such spells aren't exactly rare for the three. Rollins has been a shell of his reigning-MVP self, Howard goes into deep slumps and Utley has been pedestrian since a monster start. With Pat Burrell in a long funk, too, the Phillies' offense – its meal ticket – is going bad at the wrong time.
Atlanta, Colorado Detroit, Texas, Toronto: Just in case you still thought you had a chance … sorry.
Brad Penny: Just as soon as he's off the disabled list, he's back on with a sore shoulder. Even if Penny can return later in the season as a reliever, his absence leaves a hole in the Dodgers' rotation to be filled by Greg Maddux, who the Dodgers acquired Monday night. The worst part, for Penny: He could be a free agent if the Dodgers spend $2 million and buy out his option for 2009.
Bits and pieces from the gurus at Inside Edge …
Of the top eight teams in close-and-late hitting – a tied or one-run game after the sixth inning – seven are in playoff contention:
Red Sox, .803
White Sox, .799
Two of the teams that are so good hitting in those clutch situations, the Brewers and Rays, are also among the best in close-and-late pitching:
Though the Cardinals are still just two games behind the Brewers for the NL wild card, red flags abound with their pitching:
• The Cardinals bullpen can be trouble: Opponents' OPS after the sixth inning is .786, more than 60 points higher than league average.
• Right-handed Nos. 3 and 4 hitters give Cardinals pitching fits: They're batting .336.
• Cardinals pitchers strike out 32 percent of hitters whom they get to two strikes, worst in the NL and 4.5 percent lower than league average.
• Since July 1, no NL team has given up more home runs than the Cardinals' 56.
SKEPTICAL HOMETOWN COLUMNIST OF THE WEEK
Greg Cote, Miami Herald
The baby Fish, with their minus-31 run differential, are finally returning to earth, and Cote doesn't give them much of a chance:
With your indulgence, I would apply to the 2008 Marlins the words of William Shakespeare, slightly adapted, from his early-1600s play Julius Caesar:
I come not to bury the Marlins or to praise them but to admit the spade bearing the dirt is ever closer at hand.
OK, so I'm no Shakespeare. Lately, the Marlins aren't acting like the playoff team they purport to be, either, so we're even.
South Florida's feel-good story isn't feeling very good these days. The Little Team That Could seems more and more as if it can't, and won't.
MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
Los Angeles at Tampa Bay, Monday through Wednesday
Tropical Storm Fay permitting, of course. Should she steer clear of the Tropicana Dome, the AL's two best teams will square off for the third time this season. The Rays swept the first series with a pair of 2-0 shutouts followed by an 8-5 victory. Los Angeles exacted a bit of revenge at home in the second series, wining the last two games. Still, Tampa Bay is the only AL team with a winning record against the Angels this season, and they've got two of their three best pitchers – James Shields and Matt Garza – along with their winningest, Andy Sonnanstine, to take on Jon Garland, Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver.
PLAYOFFS ODDS REPORT
AccuScore ran 10,000 simulations of the remainder of the 2008 baseball season – and so few of them showed scenarios in which the Angels didn't make they playoffs, they simply rounded up to 100 percent. The rest of the AL playoff race has three spots for four teams.
Aside from the Cubs, who have the NL Central locked up, the race is wide open. Milwaukee, likely the wild-card team, is actually in the second-best position, according to AccuScore, and the Mets and Dodgers are favorites in the East and West.
Los Angeles Angels 100 percent
Tampa Bay Rays 94.9 percent
Boston Red Sox* 69.9 percent
Chicago White Sox 67.6 percent
Minnesota Twins 57.0 percent
New York Yankees 5.4 percent
Toronto Blue Jays 3.8 percent
Chicago Cubs 99.1 percent
Milwaukee Brewers* 75.6 percent
New York Mets 58.8 percent
Los Angeles Dodgers 57.0 percent
Arizona Diamondbacks 44.3 percent
Philadelphia Phillies 27.6 percent
Florida Marlins 19.1 percent
St. Louis Cardinals 16.1 percent
* – Wild card leader
FINAL WORD "You know what it's like when you have children and you say get the car home at a certain time or be home before a certain time and they don't. There's a certain amount of anger at first, but then a lot of it's based on disappointment." – Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, who benched B.J. Upton, one of his best hitters, for not running out a double-play ball.