Let’s get this out of the way early — Sunday’s 9-6 comeback win over the Blue Jays was the biggest victory of the season, bigger even than the extra-inning miracle against Oakland two Saturdays ago. This was a classic “get up off the mat” game, as the Yankees were down 5-2 after six innings while Baltimore was cruising to yet another win over the Red Sox. A loss would’ve dropped the Yanks out of first place for the first time since June 10 with just three games to play. Given the massive advantage that winning your division gets in the new playoff format (hosting a divisional series vs. having to win a play-in game for the right to play a divisional series without home-field advantage), every game now has a playoff-like intensity to it. So to come back and win with two straight dominant innings at the plate, in a MUST-WIN game (bigger than a normal “must-win” because of the division title implications) is a huge boon for a Yankee team that has struggled to come from behind.
That said…dear God this team is causing me to age prematurely. I been a Yankee fan since I was old enough to know what baseball was, and I have never followed a team that I loved/hated as much as the 2012 Yankees. And all of it — the Good, the Bad, the Ugly, the Galling, the Glorious — was on display Sunday.
Fans of the TV show Friends may recall a scene in which Monica mocks Rachel by chanting: “I loooove Ross — I HATE ROSS — I looooove Ross – I HATE ROSS.” Substitute “the Yankees” for “Ross” and you approach the emotions I’ve felt watching this schizophrenic Yankee team for the past six months. The Bombers are swept to open the season by a division rival? I HATE THE YANKEES. C.C. Sabathia wins his first five starts? I looooove the Yankees. Mariano Rivera tears his ACL? I HATE LIFE AND ALSO THE YANKEES. Near-perfect starting pitching spurs a 20-4 stretch in May and June? I loooove the Yankees. Hitting under .200 with runners in scoring position? I HATE THE YANKEES. 10-game divisional lead in July? Hot damn I looo– wait, they blew that lead? I HATE THE YANKEES. Making the playoffs for the 17th time in 18 years? I looooove the Yankees, but I reserve the right to HATE them if they don’t win the division.
Recently, the Yankees have begun cramming the love/hate into a single game (Sept. 19 against Toronto, for example) or even a single inning (the bottom of the 14th against Oakland on the 22nd). Such was the case on Sunday, when I watched with mounting fury as the Bombers bungled around for six innings against a hapless Blue Jays that was somehow on the verge of splitting a four-game set with us even though they had nothing to play for and we had everything on the line.
The Yankees could only scrape across two runs on seven hits in six innings against Henderson Freakin’ Alvarez, who has two last names but no quality pitching stats to speak of. The ostensibly patient Yankee lineup didn’t work a single walk off Alvarez, a shocking stat despite the absence of walk machine Mark Teixeira (more on him later). Meanwhile, Phil Hughes was lit up for five runs on eight hits in 4 2/3 innings, hardly looking like a No. 4 starter in the playoffs. The Yanks had no life on the bench, appearing listless and frustrated in a game they absolutely had to have. The Yankees may not have played as badly as the Jets did early Sunday, but they were damn close.
Then Toronto took Alvarez out of the game, and it was like someone in the Yankee dugout simply flipped the switch to “On”. The top of the seventh inning was Yankee grinding at its best. Eduardo Nunez fought back from 0-2 down and hit a single, Jeter doubled, Ichiro hit a sacrifice fly, and then the unthinkable happened: Both A-Rod and Robbie Cano fought back from behind in the count in an at-bat with RISP and reached base safely. A-Rod came all the way back from 0-2 to work a walk, spoiling two tough pitches in the process. Then Cano fell behind 1-2, spoiled two pitches of his own, and laced a double to right field that cut the Toronto lead to 5-4. A wild pitch scored A-Rod and tied the game, and even though Nick Swisher lined into a double play to end the inning, the momentum had irrevocably shifted.
The Yankees scored the winning run in the eighth inning on some vintage small ball: walk, single, sacrifice bunt, sacrifice fly, with Nunez driving in Curtis Granderson on a flyout to center. Jeter made it 7-5 with a textbook inside-out single to right field with two outs, roughly the 1,500th inside-out hit of his career (and I bet that estimate’s not far off). Two more insurance runs in the ninth gave Rafael Soriano a four-run cushion, which turned out to be important after he loaded the bases with no one out. But a double play erased the threat, and one groundout later the Yanks had the “no…no…nooo…YES” win.
The Yankees have three games left in the regular season and are tied with Baltimore for the AL East lead at 92-67. Anything could happen — the Yankees could win the division outright, lose it outright, or finish tied with the Orioles and have a one-game playoff Thursday in Baltimore for the division title (the loser would have a brutally quick turnaround for the wild card play-in game Friday). No matter what happens, though, I’m sure that I’ll loathe/love this Yankee team to the bitter/sweet end.
C.C. Sabathia goes for the Yankees tonight against the Red Sox, with the first pitch a little after 7PM. Teixeira will bat fifth and play first base in his first game back since re-aggravating his left calf strain on Sept. 8. Three games to go — it’s a sprint to the finish now.