The Yankees are off tonight, and they’ll have one eye on the television to see if Baltimore gets past Seattle in the opener of their three-game set (first pitch around 10:10 ET). Two huge wins to close the weekend over the Rays and a scuffling series loss to Oakland by the Orioles puts the Bombers a game up on Baltimore and five games up on Tampa in the division.
The Rays appear beaten back for now, and though they could have another 2011 Rays charge in them, I don’t see it. Tampa has a near-certain win every fifth day when David Price takes the mound — the lefty ace guided the Rays to their only victory all week in a 4-2 win over the Yankees on Friday. But other than Evan Longoria, the team is not hitting, and rookie hurler Matt Moore looked awfully tired Sunday, when the Yankees worked him over (five runs and 80 pitches in three innings). With seven games against the White Sox and Orioles to end the season, the Rays could actually play spoilers for the Yankees by splitting wins with two other AL East/wild card contenders.
The Orioles? I… I don’t even know what to say about the Orioles at this point. Baltimore is playing so far over its head that it makes the 2011 Denver Broncos seem unlucky. The Orioles, by run differential, should be 71-75 right now, 11 games behind their current record and 12 games behind the Yankees. The Cincinnati Reds are the next “luckiest” team in baseball, outperforming their run differential by six games. The Orioles are 27-7 in one-run games and an astounding 13-2 in extra-inning affairs this year. In back-to-back games in April, Baltimore went extra innings against the Yankees and lost. The second loss came on a walkoff homer by Nick Swisher, and since then the Orioles have won 13 straight extra-inning games. Grumble about over-reliance on statistics if you must, but that streak is extraordinary, and it’s a big part of why the Yankees are in a division race right now.
Another reason, of course, is injuries, which have kept the Bombers from fielding their most talented team for virtually the entire season. The maladies count for more than just missed games, because they take players out of their rhythm and often force them to play hurt or rehab on the fly. Take C.C. Sabathia, who has been on the DL twice this season after an injury-free six years and has not been the same pitcher recently despite appearing injury-free on the mound. The purported Yankee ace has been one of the team’s biggest liabilities down the stretch (no pun intended), blowing leads in each off his last four starts.
Of course the real injuries hurt too, especially the way they’ve added up for the 2012 Yankees. As Grantland’s Jonah Keri put it:
Saturday’s lineup featured a sub-.300 OBP in the leadoff spot (Ichiro), a sub-.300 OBP batting fifth (Raul Ibanez), and an Eduardo Nunez (Eduardo Nunez). With Mark Teixeira out of the lineup with a calf injury, Derek Jeter limited to DH duty by an ankle sprain, and Nick Swisher seven for his past 62, Joe Girardi has put together some ugly lineups.
The parade of injuries have forced the Yankees to use some awful players in key roles this year. I mean… just awful. The team gave meaningful eighth-inning setup duty to Cory Freakin’ Wade for the better part of May and June! Cory Wade!! Look at his numbers!!!!! Ichiro, Ibanez and Andruw Jones have become regular starters, and none of them have an on-base percentage higher than .311. Not batting average, on-base percentage. Then there’s Casey McGehee, who will be remembered 10 years from now the way Yankees fans remember Hensley Meulens. I’m kidding, of course — McGehee won’t be remembered at all. It’s gotten to the point where I’m legitimately excited about Steve Pearce, a literal Yankee reject who was cut by the team earlier this year and acquired from Houston because he was a better utility option than Ramiro Pena or McGehee.
The Yankees Opening Day lineup looked like this:
Derek Jeter (SS)
Curtis Granderson (CF)
Mark Teixeira (1B)
Alex Rodriguez (3B)
Robinson Cano (2B)
Nick Swisher (RF)
Raul Ibanez (DH)
Russell Martin (C)
Brett Gardner (LF)
Sunday’s lineup looked like this:
Andruw Jones (LF)
Steve Pearce (1B)
Eduardo Nunez (SS)
Gardner played all of 10 games this year. Ibanez has proven ineffective against lefties (and lately, righties). Teixeira is likely out until the final days of the regular season. A-Rod missed two months with a broken. Martin’s been healthy, but is still hitting around .205 for the season.
The pitching has been equally bange-up. In March, I crowed about the Yankees’ overabundance of starting pitching. Then Michael Pineda turned out to have shoulder problems was lost for the season before it even began. Andy Pettite successfully came back, but broke his leg in late June and will finally return Tuesday. Freddy Garcia was supposed to be a last resort option in the rotation this year; somehow, he’s started 17 games and David Phelps has started nine. And though Rafa Soriano has been amazing this year (more on this soon), the loss of Mariano Rivera has been keenly felt, especially when David Robertson missed time to injuries earlier in the season.
The Orioles season-long dance with the devil has been extraordinary. But given all the injuries and the relative age of the team, the Yankees have had just as remarkable a season. Now all that’s left is to hang on, whatever way they can.