With AL East cushion gone, Yankees face an uphill battle the rest of the way

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Just about two weeks ago, the Yankees were sitting pretty atop the AL East with a season-high seven-game lead. They just scored 21 runs in Texas (in one game!) and had won for the eighth time in their last nine games. Remember that? It was so awesome. Everything was going right and it looked like that seven-game lead was only going to grow larger and larger.

Now that lead is completely gone. Gone and then some, really. The Yankees lost their fifth straight game last night and also lost for the ninth time in their last 13 games. Rough. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, loaded up at the trade deadline and have won ten straight games — they outscored their opponents 55-20 in the ten games — catching and passing the Yankees for the top spot in the division. Toronto is now a half-game up.

I didn’t think the Yankees would cruise the rest of the season and win the AL East with ease, but I did think that seven-game lead would last longer than two weeks. I mean, what the hell. The Yankees have played miserable baseball for almost two weeks and their margin for error is gone. They’re essentially tied with the Blue Jays in the standings and now begin a new 50-ish game season to decide the AL East.

That’s both good and bad. It’s good because hey, meaningful baseball down the stretch! We really haven’t experienced that around these parts the last two years. You had to squint your eyes and try real hard to see the 2013-14 Yankees as contenders even though they did hang around the wildcard races far longer than they should have. It’ll be fun to see the Yankees back in the thick of a division race, you know? That’s the entire point of being a fan.

At the same time, it’s bad because the Blue Jays are better than the Yankees. At least on paper, I guess. They have a better offense — that is not an overreaction to the Yankees not scoring the last week, Toronto’s had an insane offense all season — as well as a better rotation and team defense. Both Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey have pitched exceptionally well the last few weeks, and, of course, they added David Price. That is … substantial.

The Yankees do have a better bullpen than the Blue Jays — Toronto’s bullpen is much improved since the trade deadline though — but the bullpen is dependent on the rest of the team. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller only become a factor if the offense and rotation put them in position to be a factor. So that’s a problem. Both the eye test and projection systems agree: the Blue Jays have a better roster and therefore a better shot to win the division going forward. That’s life.

It’s silly to call the Yankees an underdog given their payroll, but, based on the talent on their roster, they’re looking up at the Blue Jays. They’re the team playing catch up and the team that will have to outperform expectations to win the division. The Yankees did that for the first four months of the season! They exceeded expectations and took control of the division … then the lead evaporated in two weeks.

Can they get back into that mode of exceeding expectations? Gosh, who knows. Can Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira hit like MVP candidates again? Can Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury dominate atop the lineup? Can the bullpen stay on track and avoid burnout despite being asked to get like 12 outs a night? That’s a lot of questions — a lot of big questions — the Yankees need to answer in a positive way to win the division.

Simply put, the Yankees need to catch some breaks now, the same way they were going to need to catch breaks if they wanted to contend coming into the season. Not too many people expected them to sit in first place so long and I’m certain not many expect them to hold off the Blue Jays and win the AL East at this point. The two teams have ten head-to-head games remaining — including three this weekend! — and that’s an opportunity to bury or be buried.

I wish the Yankees would have done more at the trade deadline and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned older players like A-Rod and Teixeira are hitting a wall, or that Ellsbury and Miller haven’t been right since coming off the DL. The pitching has been pretty great of late but otherwise there’s not a whole lot to feel optimistic about right now. That’s only natural. The Yankees have looked really crummy the last few days.

That said, teams are never as bad as they look when they’re playing their worst and they’re never as good as they look when they’re playing their best. The Yankees are in the middle of their worst stretch of the season while the Blue Jays are in the middle of their best. That’s what it took for Toronto to make up all that ground in the standings. At some point they’ll lose and yes, at some point the Yankees will actually score a few runs. The last two weeks aren’t necessarily indicative of who these clubs will be going forward.

Let’s not mince words: the Yankees have made things very difficult on themselves with this recent stretch of poor play. That wonderful seven-game lead is gone and now they basically have to go toe-to-toe with a better team the rest of the season if they want to win the division. At the same time, no one is underestimating the Yankees more right now than Yankees fans. The AL East race isn’t over. It’s just getting started again.

Yankees lose 2-1 to Indians, drop fifth straight and fall into second place in the AL East

Remember when we all laughed at the Mets for blowing a seven-game lead in 18 days at the end of the 2007 season? Well the Yankees just blew a seven-game lead in 15 days. At least they still have another 50 games to play. Wednesday night’s 2-1 loss to the Indians was New York’s fifth straight loss and ninth in their last 13 games. The Blue Jays won yet again, so Toronto now leads the AL East by a half-game. The Yankees do have a one-game lead in the loss column, but that doesn’t make me feel any better.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Bend, Sorta Break
Looking at the box score, this seems like a perfectly acceptable start for CC Sabathia. Two runs on nine hits and two walks in six innings? Not great but that works. Sabathia has not been good this year and that’s a winnable start. Of course, if you watched the game, you know it was maybe the ugliest six innings of two-run ball you will ever see. Sabathia was in bend but don’t mode all night. Basically from the very first batter he faced.

Sabathia put the leadoff man on base is five of six innings including the first, when Jose Ramirez sliced a 2-2 single to left field. CC was able to strand that runner, as well as the leadoff base-runners he allowed in the third and fourth innings, but Sabathia wasn’t as lucky after that. Three singles and a bunt tied the game 1-1 in the fifth and then the Indians took a 2-1 lead on three singles and a ground out in the sixth. At one point six of nine Indians had hits against Sabathia and one of the three who didn’t laid down a sac bunt.

The defense gave Sabathia a big lift and helped him navigate those six innings with only two runs allowed. They turned two double plays behind him and Didi Gregorius turned in a pair of gems, one in the second and one with runners at first and second to end the sixth. Gold star kinda plays. Two runs in six innings from Sabathia is fine, you’ll take that result every time at this point of his career, but it was not pretty. He’s lucky the damage wasn’t worse.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Missed Opportunities
Early on, it looked like the offense was on the verge of breaking out. Chase Headley drew a one-out walk in the first and the Indians turned a gorgeous double play on Alex Rodriguez to bail out Danny Salazar. Brian McCann smashed a long solo home run in the second, it was a no-doubter off the bat, and two batters later Gregorius crushed a ball to the warning track that looked long gone. The acoustics at Progressive Field are deceiving. It sounded like Didi really laid into that one.

The Yankees had just the one run but there were some encouraging signs in the early innings. Salazar needed the great double play in the first and Gregorius nearly hit a ball out in the second. Offense was coming … then it didn’t. Salazar settled in, retired 13 of the next 15 batters faced — one of the base-runners was erased on a botched hit and run! — and pitched into the eighth inning. More of the same. Lots of weak contact and easy outs. Nothing we haven’t seen the last week or so.

Salazar did give the Yankees some hope in both the seventh and eighth innings but of course they didn’t capitalize. A Mark Teixeira single and a Carlos Beltran double put runners at second and third with one out in the seventh, then Gregorius popped up on the infield and Chris Young struck out. Inning over. In the eighth, Brett Gardner and Headley drew back-to-back walks with one out, then Indians closer Cody Allen got A-Rod to bang in a 6-4-3 double play. He couldn’t have rolled it any better. Tailor made.

Earlier this year, a one or two run deficit felt like nothing because the Yankees were consistently putting together rallies. Now I’m at the point where I’m wondering how they’ll blow whatever opportunities they do get, which feels a little too much like the 2013-14 seasons to me. It hits a little too close to home, ya know? The offense has rendered me speechless. I am without speech. Aarglebargle.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Leftovers
Chasen Shreve and the just called up Nick Goody tossed scoreless seventh and eighth innings, respectively, to spare the rest of the overworked bullpen. Shreve took a line drive to the pitching shoulder and the trainer didn’t even come out to check on him. Yes, Shreve waved them off, but still. Right in the shoulder! Gotta get out there and check on him. Geez.

Four hits: McCann’s homer, Beltran’s double, and singles by Gardner and Teixeira. Gardner, Beltran, Young, and Headley (two) drew the five walks. Gardner was thrown out trying to steal in the sixth inning but it wasn’t really a steal attempt. It was a hit and run, Headley swung through the pitch, and Gardner was out by a mile. Brett has one attempted one real steal in almost two months.

Gregorius made a spectacular diving stop to rob Giovanny Urshela of a hit in the second inning (video). Urshela was originally called safe but it was overturned on replay. The Yankees are 15-for-21 (!) on replays this year. That 71% success rate is the best in baseball. (The Mariners and Diamondbacks are the only other teams over 66%.) Bret Weber, whose official title is Baseball Operations Assistant, is the club’s behind the scenes video replay guy. He deserves a full World Series share after the season.

And finally, we reached peak crazy in the ninth inning, when John Ryan Murphy pinch-ran for McCann with one out, not Jacoby Ellsbury. (McCann reached on a wild pitch after striking out.) Ellsbury instead stood on deck when Gregorius struck out out to end the game, waiting to pinch-hit for Young. Amazing.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Here are the box score and video highlights, and here are the updated standings and postseason odds. Also check out our Bullpen Workload and Announcer Standings pages. Now here’s the LPA graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The Yankees will look to avoid their sixth straight loss Thursday night when they wrap up this three-game series against the Indians. The pitching matchup will be Nathan Eovaldi and Trevor Bauer.

DotF: Scranton walks off with a win thanks to Gamel and Judge

According to George King, RHP James Kaprielian was supposed to make his pro debut with one of the two Rookie Gulf Coast League affiliates today, but that didn’t happen for whatever reason. Kaprielian indicated on Twitter he was scheduled to pitch today as well. It rained a bunch in Tampa today, so maybe he was scratched and instead threw inside or something. Chances are we’ll never know.

Also, LHP Jeff Degano is apparently on his way to join Short Season Staten Island, according to his Twitter feed. He’d been in the GCL the last few weeks. Degano was this year’s second rounder. Kaprielian, of course, was the team’s first rounder.

Triple-A Scranton (4-3 win over Pawtucket in 12 innings, walk-off style)

  • CF Ben Gamel: 2-4, 2 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 2 BB — 29-for-51 (57%) with four doubles, five triples, and four homers in his last 18 games
  • 2B Rob Refsnyder: 1-5, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 BB — if they’re not calling him up right now, when will they?
  • 1B Greg Bird: 2-6
  • C Gary Sanchez: 0-5, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K
  • RF Aaron Judge: 3-5, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K — walk-off single … Donnie Collins says he made a diving catch in right as well
  • LF Jose Pirela: 1-4, 1 BB
  • DH Austin Romine: 0-5
  • RHP Eric Ruth: 6 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 10/4 GB/FB — 55 of 84 pitches were strikes (65%) … up from Double-A to start in place of Chris Capuano, who was called up to the bigs
  • RHP Nick Rumbelow: 2 IP, zeroes, 1 K, 2/1 GB/FB — only four of his 17 pitches were balls (76% strikes)
  • RHP Caleb Cotham: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 0/1 GB/FB — ten of 14 pitches were strikes (71%)
  • RHP Johnny Barbato: 3 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 3/1 GB/FB — 29 of 46 pitches were strikes (63%)

[Read more…]

Game 112: Cling to First

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Remember that seven-game lead in the AL East? It’s gone. In 15 days no less. The lead is down to a half-game and the Yankees’ odds of winning the division are down to 46.8%, according to FanGraphs. They were 78.0% the day of the trade deadline. The Blue Jays have increased their AL East odds from 16.3% to 48.1% during that same time. (The Jays have better division odds than the Yankees because the projection systems like their roster more.)

But the Yankees can’t worry about the Blue Jays right now. They’ll be time for that this weekend. Right now the Yankees just need to figure out how to score some runs and get basically every hitter on the team other than Carlos Beltran and Didi Gregorius back on track. The bullpen is spent — it’s almost like they could have used an innings eating starter at the deadline, right? weird — and their margin of error figures to be tiny. Not a good combination. Here is the Indians’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. RF Carlos Beltran
  7. SS Didi Gregorius
  8. LF Chris Young
  9. 2B Stephen Drew
    LHP CC Sabathia

It is cloudy and cool in Cleveland today, and there is no rain in the forecast either. Hooray for that. Tonight’s game will begin a bit after 7pm ET and you can watch on YES. Try to enjoy.

Roster Moves: In case you missed it earlier, Chris Capuano and Nick Goody have been called up to give the team some fresh arms. Garrett Jones and Branden Pinder were dropped from the roster in the corresponding moves.

Yankees call up Capuano and Goody, send down Pinder, designate Jones for assignment

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

As expected, the Yankees have made some moves to beef up their bullpen following last night’s 16-inning marathon loss. Both Chris Capuano and Nick Goody have been called up from Triple-A Scranton, the team announced. Branden Pinder was sent down and Garrett Jones was designated for assignment to clear roster spots. The Jones move also clears a 40-man spot for Capuano.

Pinder threw two innings and 20 pitches last night, taking the loss. Joe Girardi has thrown Pinder into some tight spots the last few days and he wound up with two losses on his record. Sucks. Jones re-signed with the team last week following Dustin Ackley‘s injury and did not get into a game. Bryan Mitchell, who threw 60 pitches last night and won’t be able available for a few days, is still with the team.

Capuano was scheduled to start for the RailRiders today, so he’ll be available for multiple innings tonight if necessary, which I really hope is not the case. He was able to get stretched out to 65 pitches in Triple-A after being designated for assignment two weeks ago. Capuano had a 6.97 ERA (5.00 FIP) in 31 innings for the Yankees before being cut and accepting his assignment to Triple-A.

Goody threw 16 pitches in Triple-A last night and was called up simply because there weren’t any other options. Caleb Cotham and Nick Rumbelow were both sent down last week and were unable to be recalled due to the ten-day rule. Goody was the only healthy call-up-able pitcher on the 40-man roster. He allowed one run in 1.1 innings with the Yankees earlier this year.

The Yankees have been talking about using a spot sixth starter at some point during this road trip and keeping Mitchell around will allow them to do that at some point. Had he been sent down, they wouldn’t have been able to call him up for ten days. Cutting Jones means the Yankees are down to a three-man bench, however. That will change once rosters expand in three weeks.

Good health has allowed Yankees to show off their depth on their terms this season

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

Last night, top pitching prospect Luis Severino made his second big league start, allowing just two runs in six innings. The first two innings were rough but he settled down and cruised the final four frames. The Yankees insist Severino is staying in the rotation, so we’ll see the young right-hander on the mound again in five days.

Severino is just the latest young player to be called up from the farm system and be asked to contribute this year. He was the 14th player to make his MLB debut with the Yankees this season and that doesn’t include two others (Joel De La Cruz, Taylor Dugas) who were called up but did not appear in a game. The Yankees have definitely dipped deep into their farm system for help this year.

“I think we have gotten younger this year,” said Joe Girardi to Alex Putterman last week. “We have a 25-year-old (shortstop). We’ve had some players who have come up and really helped. Severino (was) our 14th player this season to make his Major League debut. So we have gotten younger, and we’ll continue to get younger as these kids continue to mature.”

Getting help from the farm system was an issue the last two years. Whenever the 2013-14 Yankees called up a player, he often provided little impact, or there was no young player to call up in the first place. Organizational depth has improved considerably this year. Need an outfielder? Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Ramon Flores were there. Infielder? Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela. Relievers? The Yankees have a small army of power arms in Triple-A.

The improved depth extends beyond the farm system as well. If Chris Young is not the best fourth outfielder in baseball, then he’s certainly in the conversation. People like to complain about Garrett Jones and Dustin Ackley, but they’re something like the 24th or 25th man on the roster. Zelous Wheeler, Dean Anna, Ben Francisco, and Brennan Boesch were among the guys to fill that role in recent years. Who would you rather have as the 24th man, that cast of characters or Jones/Ackley? Exactly.

Of course, the big difference this year is health. By and large the Yankees have stayed healthy this season, at least their core players. Masahiro Tanaka (forearm), Carlos Beltran (oblique), Jacoby Ellsbury (knee), Andrew Miller (forearm), and Michael Pineda (forearm) all missed a few weeks but that’s about it. Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez have stayed on the field, first and foremost, but so has the rest of the infield, Brian McCann, and the majority of the pitching staff.

Major injuries forced the Yankees to dip into their system for help more than they would have liked the last few years. That has not been the case this season, with Ellsbury’s injury the only one that really pushed the team to give young position players everyday at-bats. (And, of course, Heathcott and Williams both ended up on the DL themselves. Womp womp.) The last spot or two in the bullpen has been used as a taxi squad for fresh arms and it’s worked pretty well, I’d say.

The Yankees have been able to call players up this year because they want to call them up, not because they have to. There’s a big difference. Compare Rob Refsnyder to David Adams two years ago. The Yankees called Refsnyder up because they wanted to give him a shot and see if he was any better than what they already had. Adams was called up because the Yankees had no choice. Injuries forced their hand. There’s a huge difference between giving someone a chance because you can or because you have no other choice.

Make no mistake, the Yankees are exceeding expectations this year (last few games notwithstanding) because most of their star players have played like stars, Teixeira and A-Rod specifically. That they’ve been able to get quality production from their depth players like Young, all those relievers, and now Severino is icing on the cake. Young players are coming up, having some success, and helping in different ways. The Yankees have much more organizational depth now than in recent years. Their system has been an asset.

Being optimistic about Sabathia’s next start

CC Sabathia1
For better or for worse, CC Sabathia is going to be a member of the Yankees starting staff for the rest of the season. There are plenty of reasons why the large lefty shouldn’t be taking the ball every fifth or sixth day — a quick scan of the pitching leaderboards is a good place to start. But the reality is Joe Girardi has insisted Sabathia remain in the rotation despite his obvious struggles, and Brian Cashman confirmed they haven’t had any conversations about changing Sabathia’s role.

Sabathia is not even close to the dominant ace he once was and it is clear that he is working with diminished stuff every time he takes the mound. Yet as he showed in his most recent start last week against the Red Sox, Sabathia still has the competitiveness and pitching savvy of a former Cy Young winner who is capable of delivering a gem on any given night.

There were a lot of positives that emerged from that excellent outing against Boston: he shut down the Red Sox bats — both lefties and righties — giving up three hits and one run in six innings; he dialed up the heat, averaging a season-best 93 mph on his four-seamer and sinker; he kept the ball on the ground, recording his second-highest ground ball rate of the season (69 percent); he was effective in putting away hitters, allowing just one hit and a walk while netting 13 outs in two-strike counts; he avoided the “disaster” inning, getting two huge strikeouts with runners on base when he ran into trouble in the fifth. Should we officially call this the CC Shimmy?

(MLB.com)
(MLB.com)

As strong as he looked last Thursday, it is silly to think that Sabathia can be that effective every time his number comes up in the rotation. We’re not here to declare that “he’s fixed” or that “he’s back.” But the vintage performance seems to indicate that Sabathia might have regained some of his confidence on the mound, and provides him with some much-needed momentum as he makes his next start tonight against the Indians.

With that optimistic perspective in hand, here’s five stats that favor Sabathia putting together another effective outing in Cleveland tonight:

• Sabathia was drafted by the Indians in the first round of the 1998 draft and spent the first six-plus seasons of his career with the Tribe, but has shown the ability to raise his game when facing his former team. He’s 4-1 with a 2.94 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 49 innings against the Indians, his second-best ERA and second-best record against any AL squad.

• The Indians have been pretty awful overall this year, and their struggles against lefties really stand out. They are just 13-24 in games started by southpaws, the third-worst record in the majors, and their .678 OPS against lefty starters ranks 26th in baseball. They are also missing their best hitter, Jason Kipnis, who was placed on the disabled list last week.

• Sabathia, of course, has been terrific versus same-sided hitters, holding lefties to a .189/.216/.297 line. That platoon split should give Sabathia an advantage against the Indians lineup which (with Kipnis on the shelf) is now led by the left-handed Michael Brantley, who has a sub-.700 OPS against lefty starters and has also struggled against Sabathia in their previous matchups (1-for-11, six strikeouts).

• Although his fastball remains very hittable, Sabathia’s nasty slider has returned to form in the past month and a half. Since the start of July, batters are just 2-for-21 (.095) in at-bats ending in a slider, and he’s gotten whiffs on more than 30 percent of those swings against the pitch in that span. In the first three months of the season, batters hit .298 and slugged .500 against his slider, which yielded a whopping 11 extra-base hits during April, May and June. It’s been his go-to pitch with two strikes against lefties — as Robinson Cano found out on July 19 against Sabathia:

(MLB.com)
(MLB.com)

• The longball has been one of Sabathia’s biggest bugaboos this season — his rate of 1.76 homers per nine innings leads the AL — but that problem might not be a huge concern against the Indians, who have hit the third-fewest homers in the league.

*******************

None of this is going to guarantee a win or even a quality start by Sabathia. But these statistical advantages, combined with the renewed spirit, pitching smarts and fiery attitude he showed in his last start, do provide a glimmer of hope and optimism that Sabathia can deliver another solid performance tonight against the Indians.