3:16 pm Aug. 30, 2012
The Yankees haven't got their division locked up yet.
Fresh off of an 8-5 loss Wednesday afternoon to the Toronto Blue Jays, the Yankees lead the Baltimore Orioles by 3.5 games, the Tampa Bay Rays by four games. Back on July 18, that lead had been 10 over the Orioles, 10.5 over the Rays. But the Yankees have been a less than break-even proposition since, with an 18-21 record, while both the Rays and Orioles have reeled off a 24-14 record apiece.
Now, those two trajectories come into direct conflict. The Yankees host the Orioles for three games this weekend, followed by a three games in Tampa Bay and four in Baltimore.
The Yankees have plenty of personnel-based reasons for optimism.
CC Sabathia took the loss Wednesday, but his two starts since returning from the disabled list have featured a 1.88 E.R.A., 17 strikeouts and just one walk. Alex Rodriguez took batting practice twice this week, and looks ready to play in minor league rehab games by the weekend. Mark Teixeira should be back shortly, too, while Pedro Feliciano could be up to bolster the bullpen within a few days. So reinforcements are on the way to help the Yankees try and hold the division lead.
Finishing first is a bigger deal than it was in, say, 2010, when the Yankees led the A.L. East by four games on July 23, only to finish a game behind Tampa Bay. The introduction of a second wild card, with a one-game playoff to determine which of those two teams will advance to the American League Division Series, means that the Yankees, if they get in via the wild card, could see their playoff run stopped with a single game.
It would be a stunning fall if they Yankees blew the division.
But it happens, of course. Back in 1978, the Yankees erased Boston's 14-game lead on July 19, rallied to take a 3.5 game lead over the Red Sox with 16 games left to play, then fell into a tie with the Red Sox by season's end. (Cue Bucky Dent.)
Similar things have happened to other teams, though infrequently enough that they are quite noteworthy when they do occur. See the 2011 Red Sox, 2007 Mets, or even the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers for more on this phenemenon.
But this would be a new role for the Yankees. Then again, so was losing a 3-0 series lead in the 2004 American League Championship Series to the Red Sox, something neither the Yankees nor any other baseball team had ever done.
Implausible is not impossible, and unless the Yankees win decisively over the next ten games, their fans will be right to worry. The Yankees are likely to prevail. But even the caveats necessary now seemed highly improbable a month ago.