It feels weird to talk about the New York Yankees as underdogs, but that’s what they are in the American League East. The Boston Red Sox took control of the division in July and haven’t looked back, and the Yankees — with a better record than the first place team in every other division in baseball — seemed like they were destined for the one-game wild-card playoff.
But we’re at the point in the season when things can change rapidly. Ten days ago, the Red Sox had a season-high lead over the Yankees in the AL East. Since then, the Yankees have surged and the Red Sox have stumbled. The race has gotten a lot more interesting, but it’s up to the Yankees — and some luck — to keep it going.
The Yankees have been on fire
August has been a roller coaster month for the Yankees. At the start of the month, they were a respectable 5.5 games behind the Red Sox. Fast forward to August 17, when they were 10.5 games back. What happened in between? A four-game sweep at the hands of the Red Sox. That alone added four games to the Red Sox division lead.
By August 17, they were 10.5 back. But that’s when things started to turn around. The Yankees won eight of their last nine games, sweeping the Toronto Blue Jays, splitting a two-game series against the Miami Marlins, and pulling off a decisive four-game sweep against the Baltimore Orioles. In those nine games, rookie Gleyber Torres is hitting .353 and has raised his average nine points. Third baseman Miguel Andujar has continued his breakout rookie season with a .400 average over those games, and is hitting .303 overall. Luke Voit, who was traded to the Yankees at the end of July, played in five of those games and hit three home runs with two walks in 15 plate appearances.
But most encouraging was pitcher Sonny Gray. Gray was moved to the bullpen at the start of August, but made a start on Saturday. And it was vintage Sonny: he allowed no runs on just three hits and one walk in 6.1 innings, and struck out seven. By the end of the Baltimore sweep, the Yankees were just six games back of the Red Sox.
The Red Sox are doing their part, too
The Yankees couldn’t have gained so many games in the AL East without a little help from the Red Sox. The Red Sox have looked fantastic all season, but since the All-Star break they’ve looked both unstoppable and inevitable. The Sox and the Yanks spent May and June going back and forth at the top of the division, but the Red Sox grabbed a lead at the start of July and haven’t given it up since.
After hitting a season-high 10.5 games ahead of the Yankees on August 17, they hit a tough 10-day stretch. Ten days doesn’t seem like a lot, but this late in the season, it represents a significant chunk of the time left to play. They lost six of their next ten games, including a four-game split with the Cleveland Indians. But worst of all, they got swept by the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that’s barely pretending to try this year. With the Yankees going 8-1 in the same stretch, their lead in the AL East was down to six games — as small as it had been in nearly a month.
Do the Yankees really have a chance?
The Yankees are six back with 32 games left to play, and they absolutely have a chance to win the AL East. Greater deficits have been made up with fewer games to play — the Philadelphia Phillies overcame a seven-game deficit with just 17 games to play in 2007, and they won the NL East that year.
Exactly half of the Yankees’ 32 remaining games are against teams with sub-.500 records — including three against the Orioles, the team they just swept in four games, and three each against the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins, who the Yankees also swept earlier in the season. As for the 16 games they play against teams with records above .500, there’s good news there, too. The Yankees have a 12-4 record against the Blue Jays this year, with three more left to play. They have a three-game series against the Seattle Mariners, who they swept in June.
It’s not all sunshine and lollipops, though. The Yankees are just 7-8 against the Rays, and they play them for four games at the end of September. They have a three-game series against the Oakland Athletics to handle. And, of course, six more games against the Red Sox. That’s really where the season will be decided. And it’ll help if the Red Sox, who have 30 games to play with 12 against sub-.500 teams, stumble down the stretch. In fact, with six games between the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Sox will almost definitely have to lose more to open the window for the Yankees.
The Yankees don’t entirely control their own fate. A lot of things will have to go right for them to surge to the top and avoid that one-game playoff. But they do control one thing: how they play. If they can come out swinging after that four-game sweep of the Orioles and capitalize on that momentum, it’ll be much easier for them to come out in first place. Beyond that, it’s in the hands of the baseball gods.
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