As the Bombers’ bats fell largely silent last night and the Angels could not mount a late-game comeback against the Rays, Yankee fans in the east will wake up to a tie atop the AL East standings. Both the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays have 37 games left to play and both teams are a Major League-best 77-48. Meanwhile, the never-say-die Red Sox are hanging on the fringes of the playoff picture, six losses back of the beasts of the easts but not quite ready to pack it in.
Three weeks ago, the playoff picture looked remarkably similar to the way it does today. Just as they did last night, a Yankee loss dropped them into a first-place tie with the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Red Sox were 6.5 games out of the East — seven on the loss side. The Red Sox needed a surge then to close the gap, but they shaved just one game off of their playoff deficit as three weeks melted away from the season.
For 20 games, then, the best league in baseball has seen its top three teams spin their wheels. No team has taken advantage of the others’ struggles, and no team has emerged the true victor. The final 37 games then will be telling, and as I did then, let’s see what the future awaits.
Of the three AL East teams still battling it out, the Yankees have the toughest schedule. (Ed. Note: All numbers are taken from this spreadsheet.) As of today, the seven teams that await the Bombers on their schedule have a combined winning percentage of .524. Only the Orioles and A’s — currently at 61-62 — are under .500 on the season. The Yanks must play the pesky Blue Jays eight more times, the Red Sox and Rays a combined 13 times and the White Sox and Rangers six times. It might be a challenge, but it’s one to which the Yanks have risen before.
So far on the season, the team has a lofty .627 winning percentage against these clubs. That number is of course powered by the 10-2 record the Yanks hold against the Orioles, but beating up on the bad teams it the way to get to October. The Yanks have lost just one each to Oakland and Texas in five and four contests respectively. They handled the White Sox in May and have a 7-5 mark against the Red Sox. All the Yankees have to do is keep doing what they’ve done, and they’ll get there.
The biggest obstacle in the way of the Yanks’ path to a symbolic AL East crown is Tampa Bay. The Rays’ final 37 games are against some weak competition indeed, and Tampa Bay has dominated these teams. The Rays’ seven opponents have a combined winning percentage of .482, and that includes the Yanks and Red Sox. Only 19 of the Rays’ last games are against opponents with winning records, and Tampa Bay enjoys 13 games against the likes of the Royals, Orioles and Mariners.
The Yanks’ saving grace though is the fact that Tampa Bay is 38-22 against these opponents. That’s a solid mark indeed, but the Yankees are 37-22 against their remaining opponents. If both teams play as they have so far, the AL East could come down to a dead heat. The tiebreaker will be the two teams’ head-to-head record, and right now, Tampa Bay has a six games to five edge.
And then we find the Red Sox, hanging around, uninvited to this two-team party. The Red Sox have just 36 games left in which to make up their deficit. Luckily — or unluckily — for Boston, they get to play 12 games against the Rays and Yankees and can kinda sorta control their own fate. Outside of those sets, though, Boston’s schedule isn’t going to give them an edge. Their seven opponents have a combined winning percentage of .505, and the Red Sox have beaten the six teams they’ve faced only 32 out of 62 times.
Even if the Red Sox can beat up on the Blue Jays, Mariners and Orioles, if they can’t decisively down the Rays and Yankees, they’ll have no chance in the AL East. Even a split of the 12 games leaves them where they are now but with only 24 games left to make up a 5.5-game deficit. It’s not impossible, but it’s highly unlikely.
For the Yankees, then, with a few question marks in the rotation and some less-than-inspired play on the field, the club will cheer on Tampa Bay this weekend as the Rays take on Boston. Even if the Yanks slip out of the AL East lead, if Tampa Bay can stomp on the Red Sox — something the Yanks failed to do two weeks ago in the Bronx — the road to October will look ever clearer. Even still, the race against the calendar still favors Tampa Bay and New York, but I’m not going to start counting my chickens just yet.