Last night’s win over Boston was huge, especially with more Showalter magic down in Baltimore.** The playoff-like atmosphere for the Yankees at Fenway was clear — Joe Girardi used six different relievers to get the last 10 outs of the Yanks’ 5-4 win and brought in Rafael Soriano for a four-out save. It was just Soriano’s fourth four-out save in 40 chances this season, and it was a nailbiter after he allowed a leadoff home run to Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the ninth that cut the lead to 5-4.
**Take 45 seconds out of your day and watch this incredible heads-up play by Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado last night. The kid’s 20 years old. Remarkable.
The Yankees prevailed in what sportscaster were calling a must-win game — and it was. But at this point in the season, tied for the division lead with 20 games to go, every game is must-win. That’s doubly true this season, when no fewer than seven AL teams are fighting tooth and nail for four playoff spots. So let’s set the scene for what should be a fascinating and frenetic final two weeks of the season.
At this point, one AL team has separated itself from the pack. That would be the Texas Rangers, who have opened up a comfortable lead in both the AL West and the overall AL standings (see below). That leaves four spots up for grabs: the AL East and Central crowns, and the TWO wild card spots in baseball’s nascent playoff format. The standings as of September 13:
AL East Division
AL Central Division
AL West Division
The seven teams behind the Rangers — the Athletics, Yankees, Orioles, Rays, Angels, Tigers and White Sox — are currently separated by just seven games in the overall AL standings. With 20 games left, even the Tigers or White Sox could claim the second wild card spot behind the Athletics if both teams get hot and the AL East trio falters. As it stands now, the Yanks, Orioles, White Sox, Rangers and A’s would make the playoffs, with Tampa Bay three games out of the second wild card.
HOWEVER, the last five years have demonstrated that even a seven-game lead with two weeks left is not insurmountable (remember these guys?). And the AL East is even tighter, with three teams separated by three games.
So of the Yanks, Orioles and Rays, who has the toughest path to the finish? Well, here are the remaining schedules for each team:
The upside for the Yankees is that Baltimore and Tampa play four more times, including the last three games of the season. In terms of strength of schedule, the Rays have the toughest task (average opponents’ winning percentage of .507), followed by the Orioles (.493) and then the Yankees (.478), who are helped by 11 more games against the Red Sox and Blue Jays. You could argue that Boston will play above its record against the Yankees, but when Jon Lester’s not starting, the Red Sox are pretty awful.
Looking at the schedules and factoring in the Yankees’ late-season experience (and the possible return of Andy Pettitte on Tuesday), it’s hard to see the Yankees missing the playoffs, which would require either a fall to third place in the division or a strong finish by both the Angels and A’s, who each have at least six games left against the Rangers. The division title is another matter, especially with Baltimore pulling rabbits out of its hat on a nightly basis. I’d like to say the cream will rise to the top, but right now, with C.C. Sabathia scuffling and Hiroki Kuroda running out of gas, who knows?
What I can say is that the playoffs will not be the “second season” for any of the AL postseason contenders. The second season begins now. Win or go golfing in October.