12:39 pm Sep. 20, 2011
Back on September 3, the Yankees held just a half-game lead over the Boston Red Sox for the American League East division lead. But it didn't matter much. Tampa Bay was nine back of the Sox, so all Boston and New York were really battling for was an extra home game in the playoffs.
Two weeks later, all that has changed. After Monday's games, the Rays are just two games behind the Red Sox for the wild card, and seven games behind the Yankees for the division lead.
Ordinarily, with eight games left for Boston, and 10 for Tampa Bay and for the Yankees, those numbers still wouldn't present much of a concern for the leaders. After all, teams with a two game lead and 8 to play almost always hang on; losing a seven-game lead with 10 to play would be unprecedented, even by 2007 Mets standards.
But this may not be the typical close to a season, and Joe Girardi needs to be careful how he handles it, balancing the need to rest an older roster with the need to lock up the Yankees’ position in the playoffs.
Tampa Bay, though in the unenviable position of needing to make up so much ground with so little time left, controls its own destiny. The Rays play 10 remaining games, and seven of their ten remaining games are with the Yankees: a four-game series in the Bronx starting Tuesday and three in Tampa Bay next Monday-Wednesday, bookending a three-game series this weekend against Toronto.
As for the Yankees, the three games they still have to play that aren't against Tampa Bay come this weekend against Boston. And the five games the Red Sox have left that aren’t against the Yankees will come against the Orioles, who lose a lot. Boston split a doubleheader with the Orioles on Monday.
While Tampa Bay rested on Monday, the Yankees beat Minnesota, 6-4. However, A.J. Burnett started and failed to make it through five innings, looking less like the Burnett who struck out 11 Mariners over six innings in his last start, and more like the Burnett who pitched to an 11.91 ERA in August.
And Girardi doesn't have the luxury yet of doing again what he did on Sunday, resting Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira, his 1-3 hitters. Those players responded encouragingly to their time off, with three hits from Jeter, two from Teixeira and a home run by Granderson in their return yesterday. Jeter's .662 OPS in September entering the game led the three (Teixeira was at .602 for September, Granderson at .550).
Could the Rays actually sweep the Yankees to bring themselves within striking distance in time for the two teams’ final showdown?
You’d have to say the odds of any team doing that are pretty unlikely. But still, consider that over the past two weeks, Tampa Bay is 11-4, playing primarily against the Red Sox and Rangers, while the Yankees have been treading water against teams playing out the string. New York's pitching includes Bartolo Colon wheezing toward the finish and Phil Hughes and his 6.00 ERA. The Yankees also have CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova, but Tampa Bay will throw four quality pitchers at the Yankees, even without ace David Price. The worst of the four, Wade Davis, has an ERA more than a run and a half better than Hughes’.
The truly worrying scenario is that the Rays beat them and, at the same time, Boston pulls out of its hard-to-believe September tailspin. While the Rays have gone 11-4, the Red Sox have cratered at 5-12. Still, should the Red Sox win their next two against the Orioles, while Tampa Bay sweeps the Yankees, both Tampa Bay and Boston would be just three games behind the Yankees—and both teams would have three more shots at New York.
Suddenly, a team that needs time to rest, heal and determine its pitching rotation behind CC Sabathia would be in a fight for survival with arguably the toughest schedule remaining.
This probably won’t happen, but it is not impossible, particularly if the Yankees decide to approach this week's series against the Rays as an opportunity to rest their stars. What they need to do, in fact, is to approach these next couple of engagements as a playoff games. Everyday players need to play. Relievers need to be stretched, if necessary. If Mariano Rivera is needed for more than an inning, then on he should come in the eighth, though he's thrown more than an inning just three times all season, and not since July 24.
Merely splitting with Tampa Bay will mean that New York enters the weekend with a playoff spot assured. At that point, the Yankees can rest their regular position players and let their starting pitchers work to lower pitch counts ahead of what is near-certain October baseball.
But until they get those couple of wins, the possibility of Tampa Bay's $39.1 million roster overtaking New York's $206.6 million squad remains.
It’s time for the Yankees to end the dream, as they have so many times before.