Last night’s win was the Yankees’ third in a row, just the third time they’ve won that many consecutive games since before the All Star break. They’ve also won four of their last six, six of their last nine, and nine of their last 13, a pace we’d sign up for any time of any season. The Yanks have also outscored their opponents 90-61 over that 13 game stretch despite a shaky rotation, an absent Alex Rodriguez, and a generally unproductive Derek Jeter (just 8-for-48 during those 13 games), a testament to how deep and talented this roster is.
And yet, the Yanks have picked up zero games in the standings. That’s because those damn Tampa Bay Rays have also gone 9-4 in their last 13 games, though their run differential is a less spectacular +11. Go all the way back to August 2nd, and the two teams share identical 15-11 records. There just hasn’t been any separation between the Yanks and Rays for a month now.
Of course, that’s not a surprise. These two teams, along with the pre-injury Red Sox, were expected to compete all season for the division crown. The fact that it’s now just a two team race actually makes things easier, even though it doesn’t feel that way. Both teams have better than a 94% chance of making the postseason, but making the playoffs is just the beginning. Winning the division affords the added benefit of having home field advantage throughout the ALDS and potentially the ALCS if they were to qualify. At 43-22 (.662), the Yanks have the best home record in the American League, and even subjectively we know how helpful it can be playing in front of the home crowd more often than not in October.
The Yankees and Rays still have two series left against each other, both coming in the middle of September. They’ll play in Florida from the 13th to the 15th, and then meet in New York for a four game set four days later. The Yanks are 5-6 against the Rays this season, so at a minimum they need to go 4-3 in those seven games just to tie the season series and the first tiebreaker. The next tiebreaker is record against AL East competition, where the Rays hold a bit of an advantage (32-19 vs. 27-20) with fewer games left to play. In the end it won’t matter, because both teams are all but assured of postseason berths.
They Rays have a stacked and powerful farm system, and will benefit room the arrivals of Jeremy Hellickson, Jake McGee, and possibly Desmond Jennings in September, not to mention the addition of Brad Hawpe. The Yankees, meanwhile, can look forward to just getting healthy. Lance Berkman will be back tomorrow. A-Rod probably by the weekend. Andy Pettitte will hopefully be back in time for that mid-September stretch against Tampa. Then there’s Damaso Marte and Al Aceves, who could deepen an already strong bullpen. I’m not sure we can safely say one team has an advantage over the other when it comes to September call-ups, but Tampa will benefit form having their guys right from the start of the month.
We put a lot of emphasis on winning the division, but making the playoffs is the first goal. Once the Yanks secure that – the magic number for a playoff spot is just 25 – they can focus on the division, but really the priority should be resting players and getting everyone healthy for a deep playoff run. Jeter, Robbie Cano, Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher, and Mark Teixeira have played basically every game this year, while CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Phil Hughes have made basically every start asked of them. Getting the legs fresh and rotation lined up for the postseason is far more important than winning the division, no matter how much we fans want another AL East crown.