Much has been made of the Yankees summer swoon, and rightly so. After all, double digit divisional leads don't typically evaporate in the span of six weeks, but that's exactly what has happened here in the second half. Starting with a demoralizing four game sweep in Oakland in which all four Yankee defeats were of the one-run variety, the team in pinstripes has gone 20-25 (.444). They have been even worse lately; since August 20th the Yanks are 5-9, allowing the charging Baltimore Orioles to catch them in the standings on Tuesday night, marking the first time since June 11th that Joe Girardi's team did not have sole possession of first place. New York avoided getting swept at the Trop by salvaging a 6-4 win over the Rays in the series finale yesterday. Meanwhile to the North, Toronto beat the O's 6-4, dropping Baltimore a game behind New York in the standings.
But that's subject to change by the end of the evening. With the Yankees in town for a four game set at Camden Yards starting tonight, the birds have an opportunity to vault back into first place. They'll send first half ace Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.54 ERA) to the hill in his first start since having knee surgery on July 16th. The visitors will counter with 25 year-old rookie David Phelps (3-4, 3.13 ERA) in a matchup that seems to favor Baltimore, at least on paper.
But even if the Bronx Bombers lose again tonight, I think they're going to be fine for the rest of September. They're not going to suffer an epic meltdown like the one their Boston rivals endured last season. Here's why:
Their schedule isn't that difficult
They get two precious off days to recuperate, and while 14 of their remaining 26 games are on the road, they don't have to do much traveling. Only three of those games (Minnesota 9/24-9/26) will be played in a different time zone, which means no red-eye cross country flights to the West Coast. Their last ten games of the season--against the Twins, Blue Jays, and Red Sox--all qualify as favorable matchups. Then again, the Red Sox had a soft schedule last September, too, and all those games against the Orioles did them no favors. When a team is cold, it's cold, regardless of who is challenging them on the field. For what it's worth, entering play today the Yanks have an 85.2 percent chance of making the playoffs with a 59.8 percent chance of winning the AL East (according to coolstandings.com). By comparison, the site gives Baltimore 47.3 percent odds of advancing into the postseason and just a 17.2 percent chance of capturing the division flag. The third place Rays, sitting one and a half games back of the Orioles, are viewed as the greater threat.
They're getting healthier
Injuries have played a big part in New York's second half slump, but with several key players back in action the Yankees will once again be a full fighting force. Alex Rodriguez has returned from a six week stint on the Disabled List with a fractured hand (courtesy of Felix Hernandez) and Mark Teixeira, who's been sidelined with a grade 1 calf strain for the past ten days, could come back as soon as tomorrow. While both players have declined in recent years, they're still above average hitters and proven run producers. Teixeira's 81 RBI lead the team, and with a big September he could clear the 30 homer/100 RBI benchmarks for the ninth consecutive season (he needs seven and 19, respectively). Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson have been dinged up lately, which explains their recent slumps, but neither one figures to miss any time. C.C. Sabathia hasn't skipped a beat since spending time on the DL last month, and the rotation will welcome back Andy Pettitte and Ivan Nova in the coming weeks.
The Orioles will fade
I know I sound like a broken record at this point, but it's going to happen, possibly as soon as this weekend. Their luck will run out sooner or later, and when it does, kiss first place good-bye. They have six more games with the Red Sox, and I'm hoping Boston can spoil their season the way they spoiled ours. With a meaningless final month of baseball sitting in front of them, that's all Red Sox Nation really has to root for; the Revenge Sox, with Pedro Ciriaco playing the part of Robert Andino.
They're the Yankees
They're winning machines. Going back to Don Mattingly's final season in 1995, this franchise has made the postseason every year except one (2008). This a veteran team comprised of proven winners with plenty of big game experience under their belts. The clubhouse is loaded with leaders (Pettitte, Derek Jeter, even A-Rod) who have all been there before and don't crack under pressure. This team has been taking care of business for nearly a century now, and always seems to rise to the occasion. They don't fold, and they won't. Because if they choke, it will be over Jeter's dead body.