As the East Coast awakens this morning to news of a hurricane making its way up the coast, nothing in the American League East can rival that storm for excitement. The Yankees and Rays are locked in a pennant race that almost doesn’t matter, and while October might be more exciting with the top teams involved, the suspense of a race where the second place team goes home empty is gone.
Right now, the Yankees are in the driver’s seat. They’re 84-50, 34 games above .500 for the first time this year, and the Rays are nipping at their heels, 82-51. Even though Tampa Bay’s schedule remains easier, the Yankees, according to Cool Standings, have an edge in the race for the AL East crown. The Red Sox remain eight games out, and although their schedule gives them a slight opportunity to get back in it, they’re nearly dead.
But it all doesn’t matter. Because of baseball’s grand experiment, both Tampa Bay and the Yankees, division rivals to the end, have a better than 98-percent shot at October. If either team misses the playoffs right now, it will be due to a nearly historic collapse. Outside of the New York Mets, teams just don’t easily relinquish eight-game leads on playoff spots with 28 left to play.
For baseball purists, this 1990s development still rankles the soul, and in his column in the Wall Street Journal today, Jason Gay bemoans the division race that isn’t. “Feel the passion!” he writes. “Aren’t you just riveted by back-and-forth Yanks-Rays suspense? Either the Yankees will begin the playoffs at home or—hold on, just wait for it—the Rays will.”
What bothers Gay most is how the Wild Card — admittedly, as he says, a positive development for the game — has robbed baseball of what should be an exciting story line. “It’s hard not to feel a little cheated,” he said. “The two best teams in baseball—with amazingly paradoxical story lines and operating philosophies—have been playing each other razor-close for weeks (they recently spent eight days tied for first, a record this late in the season) and meet seven more times this month. Had this been the 1950’s, it’d be the kind of race they’d write show tunes about. Or books you buy in airports. But it’s not. It’s not a meaningless September in the Bronx. It’s just not as meaningful.”
It’s not as meaningless because the two teams are playing for something. As I noted earlier this week, home field advantage remains up in the air, and it’s tough to understate the importance of that advantage in the playoffs. In five of the past six seasons, the AL team with home-field advantage won the championship series and advanced to the World Series.
The problem though with playing for home-field advantage is that it’s an obtuse goal that doesn’t play well in marketing campaigns. Come see the Rays and the Yanks duke it out for home-field advantage! Come watch a potential playoff preview three weeks before the games truly count! The draw just isn’t there.
For the Yankees, September is important because the club has to get healthy. They have to align their rotation; they have to secure that playoff spot. There will be no Bucky Dent moments here, no situation where two teams win over 100 games and one goes home, no winner-takes-all moments. It’s just a September to get ready, not one to remember.