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.