The end is nigh. Today marks the final day off in the Yankees’ 2011 regular season schedule. They’ll play 14 games in 13 days starting Friday, running through a gauntlet of AL East foes (and the Twins once). That might sound like a daunting task, but the Yankees have mitigated it by placing themselves in a favorable position.
At the start of September they trailed the Red Sox by a game and a half, though they had a comfortable 7.5 game lead in the Wild Card race. Since then the Red Sox have collapsed, going 3-10 and yielding the AL East lead. The Yankees now sit four games ahead of their foes and have a magic number of 11. Even more importantly, their magic number for a playoff spot is down to seven. This is important, since it takes a little emphasis off the grueling schedule ahead.
Because they haven’t yet clinched the Yankees can’t quite start planning ahead. They’ve taken their foot off the accelerator to a degree, but they can’t trot out a lineup composed almost exclusively of September call-ups just yet. But with the Sox and the Rays locking horns this weekend, the Yankees stand to gain some ground. They could be in a position to clinch the Wild Card early next week, and the division not long after.
The expediency with which they clinch holds a certain importance this year, since the team faces a few challenges as they prepare for the playoffs. Here are some things to consider in the final two weeks.
Get Alex Rodriguez Reps
Joe Girardi said that Rodriguez will appear on Friday’s lineup card, and barring any last-minute setbacks he’ll play third base and bat fourth in that game. There’s a chance that he could hold those spots for each of the 14 remaining games. He has appeared in just 90 this year, and is guaranteed to play in his fewest number of games since 1995. Resting him at this point would be counterproductive.
Getting Alex going is of great importance right now. As we’ve seen throughout the year, even the best bats on the team can go cold for stretches. Even Curtis Granderson, the team MVP, has slowed down lately. The more quality bats the Yankees have in the lineup, the better chances they get a few who are hot and will produce runs in the postseason. Despite his power outage Rodriguez has still been one of the most productive Yankees, on a rate basis, this season. Getting him sharp in time for the postseason will surely add some runs to the ledger.
Rest The Walking Wounded
Playing through injuries is the reality of a 162-game schedule. Every player does it at some time or another, but that doesn’t mean he could use a breather when convenient. These guys will likely keep playing straight through the game when they clinch, but will be due a few games off in the days following.
Russell Martin could use a couple of days off. He’s battled through nagging injuries all year, most recently a foul ball off the thumb. Nick Swisher has that elbow issue, and while it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem now he could still probably use a few days without high-stress throws. And that doesn’t even mention the guys who could use a breather after going at breakneck speed all season, such as Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson.
In essence, clinching early allows Girardi to give these guys a few days to back off, recover, and get ready for the playoffs. The earlier they clinch the earlier they can take these breaks, and the earlier they can get back in the swing of things.
Lining up the pitching staff
The Yankees are already shifting around the pitching staff, but as Mike mentioned earlier this week, they have to do some serious rotation juggling to get CC in line for a Game 1 start in the ALDS. They also have to line up the guys they want going in Games 2 and 3 as well. The sooner they clinch, the sooner they can tinker with things and give guys extra (or perhaps short) rest leading into the series.
While there is no way to line up the bullpen, the same principle applies to them as the position players. There’s a certain balance the Yankees need to strike between giving them rest and giving them work to keep them sharp. A week of meaningless games will afford them that exact opportunity. Heading into the playoffs they should have Soriano, Robertson, and Rivera rested and sharp enough to pitch any game needed.