Path to division title not easy for Yanks
Having grabbed AL East lead, Rays may not look back
NEW YORK -- The Yankees have found their way into second place. The trick now would be rediscovering the road that leads out of this spot and toward another World Series championship.
It was all much easier to calculate just three nights ago, when the Yankees -- riding back-to-back victories over the Tampa Bay Rays -- had a 2 1/2-game lead in the American League East. But the Yanks lost the last two games of that four-game series, including a truly troubling defeat on Thursday night, when ace CC Sabathia -- staked to an early lead -- was battered.
The Yankees encored with a 10-8 loss on Friday night against -- gulp -- the Red Sox. No usual scripts were followed. The Yankees rallied from a 10-1 deficit with six home runs but lost.
"It's hard to believe," said manager Joe Girardi of the combination of six homers and defeat. But there it was.
Andy Pettitte, usually a reliable late-season factor for the Yanks, took the loss. And the Rays, by beating the Seattle Mariners, took over first place in the AL East. The Yankees had gone from looking like the typical No. 1 seed to occupying the Wild Card position in the AL postseason picture.
The difficulty facing the Yankees in this race is readily apparent. They have five games left with Boston, including a three-game series to close the season at Fenway Park. They also have three games in Toronto. The Yankees have eight regular-season games remaining, all against teams with winning records.
The Rays, meanwhile, have two more games against the Mariners and three against the Orioles, all of those at Tropicana Field. They finish the regular season with a four-game series at Kansas City. That would be nine games, all of them against teams with losing records. The AL East title is Tampa Bay's to lose. The Rays -- holding first place, facing inferior opposition -- are in a position where they should win.
You can reasonably ask, "What difference does it actually make? So what if the Yankees wind up in the Wild Card berth as opposed to going into the postseason as a division winner?"
If the Yankees don't win the AL East, they'll open the postseason on the road against the top-seeded AL team not in their division. That's going to be the Minnesota Twins.
Now, for those people who automatically feel that they have to say "The Yankees always beat the Twins in the playoffs; it'll be a piece of cake," there are a few other factors to consider.
It is true that the Yankees have beaten the Twins in the postseason three times over the last seven years, including last year. In those series, the Yankees had a 9-2 record. But the Yankees had the home-field advantage in each and every one of those postseason series.
It's a different ballgame in the Twin Cities this year, because the Twins are playing in a real Major League facility, not a football stadium with a roof. Yes, the Twins had a big home-field advantage playing in the Metrodome, with its quirks and oddities. But they have a better home-field advantage at Target Field.
It's a terrific ballpark. The Twins feel better about themselves having a first-class Major League facility, and the Minnesota fans have done their part by creating a terrific, intense home-field atmosphere at Target Field.
The result? The Yankees have the second-best home record in the AL at 51-28. The best home record in the Majors? That would belong to the Minnesota Twins at 52-25. This is very possibly a better Minnesota club than any of the three the Yankees have beaten in the postseason, even with first baseman Justin Morneau sidelined due to a concussion.
But what is of more concern to the Yankees right now is not the Twins, or even the Rays. It is the Yankees' own pitching performance. The starting rotation, the critical element that typically determines postseason success or failure, is not firing on all five cylinders. Sabathia, who is typically dominant in the second half, had a genuinely bad start on Thursday night. That might have been a fluke, but there are other questions.
Pettitte, a proven postseason winner, came back from a left groin strain with an encouraging start against Baltimore last weekend. But his performance on Friday night against Boston was anything but encouraging; he allowed six earned runs on 10 hits in 3 1/3 innings.
Pettitte said that he did not have acceptable command of his fastball, and since he has come back from the disabled list, the left-hander has been unable to establish his cutter. Beyond that, there is the question of his endurance. The Yankees had hoped he would throw 90 pitches on Friday night, but he lasted for only 75 before being removed in the fourth.
Sabathia and Pettitte formed two-thirds of the postseason rotation that won a World Series title for the Yankees last season. The third member of that rotation, A.J. Burnett, posted a 7.80 ERA in August. His ERA has come down to 4.33 in September, and two of his September starts have been shortened by rain and thus are difficult to judge. But the total Burnett package does not serve to instill overwhelming confidence.
Phil Hughes is having his next start, originally scheduled for Sunday, pushed back to Wednesday, as the Yankees attempt to limit his innings.
In all, the Yankees' rotation situation can be generously described as unsettled. This is not what you want when battling for a division title, trying to get ready for the postseason. But this is what the Yankees have at the moment.
Perhaps young Ivan Nova can turn the tide against the Red Sox on Saturday. Someone has to do it, and quickly. When your club hits six home runs and still loses, that sort of pitching does not exactly stand up and shout: "World Series!"
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.