A collection of takeaways from a 5-1 week that may just have saved the Yankees’ season:
–Saturday’s miraculous comeback win over the A’s was the biggest win of the year. I’ve harped all season about Bad Losses, games that a team should win but somehow doesn’t. The obvious counterpoint to that is what we’ll call Good Wins — victories that either come from nowhere or somehow occur against all odds. Saturday’s absurd dream of a five-hour, 43-minute, 14-inning, 10-9 win for the Yankees was as Good as a Good Win gets. Check out the schizophrenic win probability chart for the game — going into the bottom of the 13th, the Yankees had a 2 percent chance of winning! After the Bombers squandered two great chances to win in the bottom of the 12th (Raul Ibanez getting thrown out at home on a ground ball for the second out, then Derek Jeter flying out with the bases loaded to end the inning), the team seemed headed for a frustrating loss that would allow the Orioles to pull even in the AL East.
Instead, the Yanks demolished Pedro Figueroa and Pat Neshek, two back-of-the-bullpen pitchers for Oakland who were forced into service because both teams had exhausted their relievers by this point. Though Neshek has quality numbers over the past two months, he struggles mightily against lefties, who have hit .385/.429/.846 against him this season. Coincidentally, Raul Ibanez hits lefty, and the Yankee veteran crushed a 3-1 breaking ball from Neshek into the second deck in right field to complete the comeback and tie the score at 9-9. After that, nothing could stop the Bombers, not even the sight of Cory Wade on the mound in the 14th or rookie pinch-runner Melky Mota MISSING THIRD BASE on what would have been a game-winning single by A-Rod in the bottom of the 14th. Two batters later, Eduardo Nunez slapped a routine, inning-ending ground ball to first — only A’s first baseman Brandon Moss booted the ball, allowing Ichiro to score from third and letting Mota off what would have been a very sharp hook. A back-from-the-brink victory over a fellow playoff contender with 10 days to go in the season? That’s pretty much the definition of a Good Win.
–How good was Ichiro last week?! The rainout of Tuesday’s scheduled game against Toronto gave all of the Yankees including Ichiro two straight days off. After playing 16 games in 17 days, the brief rest clearly rejuvenated Ichiro, because in the six games since then he’s hitting .600 (15-25) with two home runs, three doubles, seven runs scored, five RBIs and six stolen bases. Ichiro’s tour de force came in Wednesday’s day-night doubleheader, when he went 7-8 on the day and turned in a performance for the ages in the night game: 4-4, four stolen bases, and the game-winning hit in the eighth inning. The final at-bat was vintage Ichiro; facing Toronto lefty Steve Delabar, he basically ignored the right half of the field and looked from the first pitch of the at-bat to take Delabar the other way. After fouling a pitch into the left-field seats and taking a ball, Ichiro slapped an outside fastball to left field, scoring Curtis Granderson and giving the Yankees a much-needed clutch hit** to win a gimme game they were somehow in danger of losing. Then, with the fans chanting “I-CHI-RO!”, he stole second and third base for good measure. A lot of people posited that Ichiro’s play would improve because he was playing for a playoff contender for the first time in ages, and it turns out those people were right. In 57 games for the Yankees, Ichiro is hitting .331/.356/.481 with 20 RBIs, 21 runs scored and 12 stolen bases, mostly from the bottom of the lineup.
**In Wednesday night’s game, the Yankees had at least one runner in scoring position in every inning but the seventh and came away with a total of two runs. Ichiro went 2-2 with runners in scoring position in the game, and everyone else went 1-12. I’d say more, but what more needs to be said?
–Another subpar start in a big spot by Ivan Nova should once and for all end his chances to be a part of the postseason rotation. Frankly, that would be long overdue. In 55.1 innings since the All-Star Break, Nova is 2-4 with a 6.99 ERA and a 1.63 WHIP. Opponents are hitting .309 against him, and he’s giving up more than one home run every 5.2 innings. His last two starts were classic Nova: a solid outing against the light-hitting Rays with everyone expecting him to fail, and a brutal start against the A’s (a potential playoff opponent) that ended with one out in the third inning. Nova will get two more starts to make a last-minute impression on Joe Girardi, but to me it should be academic: If the Yankees do make the playoffs, Nova should not sniff the postseason roster. Unlike Hughes or David Phelps, Nova has never been effective as a reliever, and with Sabathia/Pettitte/Kuroda/Hughes as the likely playoff rotation, the Yanks will have no use for him.
–Derek Jeter got his 200th hit of the season on the first pitch of the bottom of the first inning on Wednesday night.
It was Jeter’s 40th hit on the first pitch this season, in keeping with the Captain’s career-long tendency to catch pitchers trying to get a free strike. Watching the game with my dad, I asked: “What odds could I have gotten from you last June that Jeter would ever get 200 hits in a season again?” He chuckled and made a joke about how much money was at stake, but the point was understood. 15 months ago, Jeter was “washed up” — now he leads the majors in hits, is third in the AL in batting average and is a legitimate top-five AL MVP candidate. Skip Bayless whining about steroids aside, Jeter has fought off Father Time in a manner befitting his Core Four buddy, Mariano Rivera. I’ve said this 100 times before (though not on this blog), and I’m sure I’ll say it 100 more times: When I tell my grandchildren about my formative years rooting for the Yankees, I’ll say with pride and more than a little awe that I grew up during the career of Derek Jeter.
–The current AL East and wild card standings:
AL East Division
|Baltimore||87||65||.572||+1.0||-||7-3||L1||9/23 @ BOS, L 1-2||9/24 vs TOR, 4:05 PM|
|Oakland||86||66||.566||-||-||4-6||W1||9/23 @ NYY, W 5-4||9/24 @ TEX, 8:05 PM|
|LA Angels||84||69||.549||2.5||8||7-3||W3||9/23 vs CWS, W 4-1||9/25 vs SEA, 10:05 PM|
|Tampa Bay||83||70||.542||3.5||7||6-4||W5||9/23 vs TOR, W 3-0||9/25 @ BOS, 7:10 PM|
|Detroit||80||72||.526||6.0||5||5-5||L2||9/23 vs MIN, L 1-2||9/24 vs KC, 7:05 PM|
To make things a little simpler, the Yankees are currently 4.5 games up on the Angels, who are the first team out in the wild card race. That puts the Yankees’ magic number to clinch a playoff berth at six (a combination of Yankee wins and Angel losses) with 10 games to play, and their magic number vis a vis every other playoff pursuer is fewer than that. Of course, the Yanks will hardly be satisfied with a wild card berth and a one-game playoff against the other wild card team just to make the real postseason.
So the Bombers have a simple task: hold off Baltimore and win the division. Because the Yanks and Orioles split their season series 9-9, the AL East tiebreaker would be divisional record. Right now, the Yankees have a 36-29 division record, and the Orioles’ AL East record is 37-25, so a tie would likely give the Orioles the crown. The Orioles have 10 games against the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Rays left, and I’ll peg them at 7-3 the rest of the way. If that prediction holds, the Yankees will have to go 7-3 or better in 10 games against the Twins, Blue Jays, and Red Sox.
My money’s on the Yankees, if only because the Rays are the toughest opponent either team will face the rest of the way. But it’ll be tight. And given the vastly easier playoff path for a division winner, the stakes don’t get much higher than this.