The Yankees have been playing for more than five long months now, and there’s just 22 games left in their season. Believe it or not, they have just a single homestand remaining, a seven gamer that starts on September 20th with the Rays and ends on the 26th with Boston. Sandwiched around that homestand are a nine game road trip and a six game road trip that feature just three games (total) against a club with a losing record, and that’s the same Orioles team that just took two of the three in the Bronx.
Ben’s written about it ad nauseum over the last few weeks, so we all know that the Yanks have a tough schedule over the season’s final weeks. The good news is that they’ve basically locked up a playoff spot already, so even if they were to go 8-14 the rest of the way, the Soxes (White and Red) would need to go at least 18-5 and 17-5, respectively, just to tie. But the Yanks aren’t the kind of team to settle for just getting in, we want the biggest and the best.
Winning the division will bring really just one key benefit because, for all intents and purposes, it will guarantee not just the best record in the American League, but the best record in baseball overall. That benefit is obvious: homefield advantage in both the ALDS and ALCS regardless of opponent. While it’s nice to have that comfort, it’s really not critical. The Yanks have one of the best road records in baseball at 38-28, and as R.J. Anderson explained, the team with homefield advantage in a given series typically only benefits if it goes the full five (ALDS) or seven (ALCS) games. Not having homefield advantage shouldn’t be enough to derail a team of this caliber.
Capturing the AL East crown is a nice feather in the cap and a great accomplishment, but in the Wild Card Era it’s hardly imperative. There’s really not much of a difference between facing the Twins or Rangers in the Division Series, because facing Francisco Liriano twice in a five game stretch is just as bad as facing Cliff Lee. Given the playoff schedule, the Yanks will only need three starters in the ALDS, something that should put everyone’s mind at ease. CC Sabathia obviously goes in Game One, presumably Andy Pettitte in Game Two, then either Phil Hughes or (more likely) A.J. Burnett in Game Three. If Game Four is needed, Sabathia can go on three days’ rest, then Pettitte lines up perfectly to start a potential Game Five on normal rest.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. If the Yankees plan on winning the division, they first have to navigate this final 22-game stretch. The biggest games are obviously the seven with Tampa, particularly the four game set at the New Stadium in two weeks. There’s a chance the division race will be decided by the end of that series, but at the very least the Yanks should have a playoff spot locked up by then. It’s pretty cool to think that even though the Yanks and Red Sox play six times in the final nine games of the season, those games are essentially meaningless and will have no bearing on either team’s playoff hopes, but only if you’re not a Red Sox fan.
Even though Nick Swisher sent everyone home happy yesterday, let’s not forget that the Yanks played some awful looking baseball over the last four days. They need the rotation to sort itself out, and really all that entails is a healthy return from Andy Pettitte and someone from the Hughes, Burnett, and Javy Vazquez trio to step up and establish themselves as that third guy. Derek Jeter’s not going to magically turn back into the .334/.406/.465 hitter he was last season, but he needs to step up and do better than the .233/.300/.322 crap he’s pulled over the last two months. Robbie Cano needs to snap out of his slump and get back to being the best player on the team. Nick Swisher needs to get healthy, ditto Austin Kearns and Jorge Posada.
At the moment, the Yanks have a 99.2% chance of making the playoffs according to CoolStandings.com, so Joe Girardi can afford to rest his regulars and core bullpen guys over these final 22 games no matter how much it frustrates us. The big picture should always trump the here and now. The season is almost over, but the Yanks still have a long way to go to get where they want to be, and that’s firing on as many cylinders as possible.