Be honest: If the Yankees weren’t indirectly involved in the AL’s most compelling storyline right now, would you even watch their last two games? I wouldn’t. My MLB.tv would be set to the Rays and Red Sox games. It’s a bit fortunate, then, that the Yankees are facing the Rays. It means I can watch the Yankees finish out their season while keeping up with the most exciting games of the season.
Yankees fans have to be divided in some way during these last few games. Can any of you actually root for the Yankees to lose? That’s a tough proposition. I can let go of a loss much easier in this instance, but I don’t think actively rooting for the Rays is an option right now. But at the same time I want to see the Red Sox complete The Collapse and watch playoff baseball from their homes. (Though, given the enormity of their collapse I doubt any of them would actually watch baseball this fall.)
One reason for wanting the Red Sox out of the playoffs is obvious. As Yankees fans we have two duties. First, and foremost, is to root for the Yankees. That takes precedence over everything else baseball related. A distant second is to hope for Red Sox losses. Yet there is another, perhaps more powerful, element at play here. I don’t just want to see the Sox fall out because they’re the Sox. I want them to fall out because they’re the Sox. Allow me to elaborate.
Losing skids last only so long. Good teams can slump, and in rare instances they can collapse for a few weeks. Let’s not pretend that the Red Sox are actually this bad. They have scored more runs than any team in baseball. They have two top-tier pitchers heading their staff. They have two phenomenal relievers to end games. For the first five months of the season they won more games than any team in the American League, despite going just 11-15 in April. They’re absolutely a threat if they make the playoffs.
The principle at play here is that hot and cold streaks can turn on a dime. Remember when the Yankees lost six straight? They then won that seventh game and ended up winning seven of their next nine. Then, from May 29th through July 2nd they went 23-8. Then remember when they won eight straight to start August? They followed that by losing three straight. True, none of those streaks and skids nearly measure up to Boston’s current slide. But the principle holds true: streaks and skids can change at any time, without notice or prior indication.
The only reason to root for the Red Sox at this point is if you feel that the Rays are the stronger overall team. Given the way both teams have played throughout the season, that’s a tough point to argue. Remember, it’s not as though the Rays went on some crazy winning streak to pull back into the AL Wild Card race. They’ve gone 14-10 in September, after an 18-10 August. Those are good records, by and large, but they’re not part of some miraculous surge. They play solid baseball, and have all season. The Red Sox, on the other hand, played dominant baseball for four to five months before collapsing in the final one. If they get back on track, they’re clearly a bigger threat than the Rays.
The question, then, is whether you think the Sox can get back on track. I certainly think they can. They’re too good not to. If that turnaround happens in the last few games, they could be headed to the playoffs with that terrible September behind them. It’s a brand new life, and it’s not difficult to see them using that life to steamroll the AL playoff competition. And then we’re back to the whole rooting for the Yanks and against the Sox thing.
Bonus 1: Counterpoint
While writing this I couldn’t help but think of the rivalry. The Red Sox and Yankees, when they have something on the line, makes for some of the most compelling baseball I’ve ever watched. Wouldn’t the best possible ALCS matchup be the Yankees vs. the Red Sox? And, if the Yankees were to win the World Series, wouldn’t it be that much sweeter to go through the Sox in doing so?
These are tough questions to balance. I fully believe that the Yankees’ easiest path to the World Series is one that does not involve the Red Sox. But at the same time, I believe that a matchup with the Sox will make for the best baseball. It can be tough to reconcile these two thoughts.
Bonus 2: This could be a drama-free series
Last week Joel Sherman reported that MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to add a fifth playoff team from each league. This could go into effect as early as next year. The premise is simple: the two non-division-winners with the best records will play one game to determine who advances to the next round. While the main idea here is revenue enhancement, there are baseball reasons at play. Namely, it makes the division title much more important. It could also lend drama to the final few weeks, since another team would have something at stake.
This year, however, the additional playoff spot would reduce the drama of the Wild Card chase. The Rays and the Sox would have little to play for in the final two games, since they’d face each other in a one-game playoff regardless of how they fared in the last two games. Yes, there would have been a little added interest with the Angels involved, but they played their way right out of it this weekend. And so instead of watching the Rays and the Sox closely this week, we could turn off our TVs until Wednesday, when those two teams would have their playoff.
Yet the current system makes this race that much more compelling. We have a real race, one that could easily end in a tie and force a Game 163. Yes, the new system will bring a Game 163 every year, but then it will lose some of its magic. The beauty of Game 163 is that two teams somehow ended up tied for a single playoff spot. There’s natural drama there. But with a forced one, it’s just business as usual. It won’t be bad, per se, but it’s not necessarily better than the system currently in place.