It hasn’t, as we wrote yesterday, been the best of times for the Yankees lately. Mired in a 2-8 slump which has seen the team lost three extra-inning affairs and five one-run contests, the franchise hasn’t played baseball this frustrating since they went 3-15 to close out the 2000 season. Yet, the end is in sight.
Later tonight, A.J. Burnett and the Yankees will face off against Kevin Millwood and the Orioles, and thus the Yanks will begin the final tenth of their season. Only 16 games separate them from the end of the regular season, and the team is holding onto a six-game lead in the Wild Card while staring at a small 0.5-game deficit in the AL East. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Yanks’ Playoff Odds sit at 96.5 percent, and while stranger things have happened, the team is a near lock for October. Just how they’re going to do on the way there remains to be seen.
Over their next 16 games, the Yankees will face only their AL East teams. They play the Orioles three times, the Rays four times, the Red Sox six times and the Blue Jays three times. They don’t have to travel farther than Toronto, and seven of the final 12 are at home. Against these opponents, the Yanks are 31-24 this year, and if they can replicate that success, they should go 9-7 the rest of the way.
For the Yanks to win the American League East, though, they’re going to have to do better than that. Over their final 17 contests, Tampa Bay plays only one team over .500 — the Yankees. They host the 71-75 Angels this weekend before a four-game showdown in the Bronx next week. Seattle and Baltimore swing by Tampa Bay for six before the Rays play four against the Kansas City Royals during the last weekend of the season. Against those teams, the Rays are 24-15, and if they replicate that total, they’ll end the year with with a 10-7 record, finishing one game ahead of the Yankees. Talk about heartbreak.
The ultimate question then concerns the team’s ALDS opponents. Due to a late-season surge that saw them run roughshod over their AL Central compatriots, the Twins and the Yanks are currently tied for the second base record in the AL. Both teams are 5.5 games better than the Rangers, and the Twins seem destined to play the Wild Card team in the first round.
For many in New York, Minnesota’s success this year is a bit of a surprise. The Yanks went 4-2 against the Twins this year and haven’t had many problems downing Minnesota. How then did the Twins get there? Playing in the Central played no small role in that. The Twinkies are 42-20 against their division rivals and just 46-38 against everyone else. Francisco Liriano is a true Cy Young candidate who’s given up just four home runs in 178.1 innings this year, but the rest of their rotation is heavy on the Carl Pavano and Scott Baker and light on everyone else. As a team, they rely more on keeping the ball in the park than on blowing hitters away, but they do sport a top-three offense in the AL.
And so we hit the stretch drive with a road to October before us. The Yankees need to shake off their recent slump and finish strong. To win the division, they’ll have to take at least three of four from the Rays this week, and they ought to beat up on the Orioles. Of course, playing the Twins isn’t the worst first round match-up, but with bragging rights on the line, a division crown would be a nice prize. A solid run through the next two weeks would put this 2-8 play behind us, and we’ll start over come game 1 of the American League Division Series.