Last year the Yankees faced their toughest challenge of the season right after the All-Star break. They were 51-37, three games behind first-place Boston, and had learned that Chien-Ming Wang would be lost for the season. Under different circumstances the Yanks might have been able to skip Wang’s start so they could search for an adequate replacement. But with a makeup game against Oakland eating one of their July off-days and a make-up against Tampa resulting in a September doubleheader the Yanks were set to play 53 games in 56 days during the hottest stretch of the season.
That sounds pretty brutal. Not only does the team lack for days off, but it also has to play all those games in the summer heat. That can take a lot out of anyone, even a pro athlete. This makes me worry about stretches like this. What if the team tires towards the end? In a tight division like the AL East that could make all the difference. Yet that didn’t stop the 2009 Yankees. They went 40-13 in those 53 games, making the AL East among the least interesting divisional races in the process.
This year the Yankees got the same four-day All-Star break, which conveniently came after their last West Coast trip of the year. They faced a tough challenge when facing their closest foes right afterward, but were rewarded with another day-off yesterday. Today, however, starts their long stretch of 2010. There are no make-up games — yet — but the Yanks will still play 44 games in 46 days. This is not only a rough-looking stretch in itself, but it looks tougher when you look at their workload during the past 26 days, in which they played 19 games. That’s quite a change.
The Yanks have shown in the past that this shouldn’t be much of a concern. Again, last year they went 40-13 during a 53 games in 56 days stretch. I particularly remember a similar stretch in 2006, when they played 36 games in 37 days. They went 22-14 in that time, including the infamous five-game sweep of the Red Sox. The Yanks also played two doubleheaders then, though one was a day-after make-up game against the Tigers. It might have bought them an extra day, but I imagine they’d rather have played the two games in two days than have the rain out followed by a doubleheader.
In 2007 they had it even worse, playing 55 games in 56 days, including two doubleheaders, coming out of the break. The Yanks were 43-43 at that point, 9.5 games back in the AL East, and it looked like a season-defining stretch. They went 35-19 in that stretch, and while they gained only 3.5 games on the Red Sox in the Eat they jumped out to a three-game lead in the Wild Card standings. That’s where they finished, though not without making a run for the division later in September.
It seems, then, that there is no reason to be concerned about the coming stretch of games. In three out of the last four years they have performed very well during similar stretches. Not only that, but they basically staked their claim to the AL East in two of the four years. Even more reassuring is the performance of last year’s team during their long summer schedule. It still seems unreal. How often do we see a team rattle off 40 wins in 53 games this late in the season? The answer is not very.
Yet the Yankees have. While I sit in the bleachers and feel the sun beating down on my body and reflecting off the metal benches and concrete, the players are thinking just one thing. Win. If the Yanks can pull off a huge stretch for the fourth time in five years, they should have a firm command of the AL East.