When the New York Yankees sat 5.5 games back of the Baltimore Orioles on May 21, no one could have predicted that they would enter the final road-trip of the first-half with a six-game lead over the same team. But, the Yankees went ballistic over the last 36 games, winning 27 of them, including stretches in which they won ten straight games and two separate five-game win streaks.
The timing of the surge has given the Yankees a decent cushion in the American League East, one which has swelled over the last week by 3.5 games. The Bombers are ensured to be no worse than 1/2 back of first-place at the end of the road trip should they lose six straight and O’s win their next seven. The padded lead has the Yankees in a comfortable position despite being without two key members of the rotation, CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte.
Though Sabathia is recuperating fine and looks like he will be ready after the All-Star break, Pettitte is hoping to be back by September barring any setbacks. The dilemma of who would step up to fill the role in the rotation is turning into a friendly competition of “I’m better than you” among the top three candidates. Ivan Nova, Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes were each spectacular in their first turns through the rotation with the two big guns out of the mix.
Each starter seemed to feed off each other during the recent series against the AL Central leading Chicago White Sox, a team that can hit well. Nova probably should have won his game, but was done in by his bullpen. Kuroda was the most dominant of the three, tossing seven innings of scoreless ball with a career-tying high of eleven strikeouts. Yesterday, Hughes finished off the trifecta with an impressive eight-inning performance in which he allowed only two runs.
What’s best about the run, which has lasted the equivalent of almost 25% of the season, is that the Yankees have received contributions from virtually all aspects of the game and players on their roster. There has been plenty of power on display as the Yankees continue to build on their major league leading home run total on an almost daily basis. The homer onslaught has offset the RISP issues which have plagued them throughout the stretch. They have been getting fantastic starting pitching as a whole and the bullpen has provided consistency throughout. Their bench has been extraordinary, as it seems that someone new steps up on many nights.
The Yankees are set to face a Tampa Bay Rays team which has had considerable trouble over the last few weeks and is not playing well at home, but they almost always give the Bombers fits. The Rays have their top three pitchers lined up for the series and certainly have the advantage in this department with Freddy Garcia and David Phelps book-ending the probable Yankees starters for the three-game set. Nova’s performance will be a key point in the middle game of the series.
The Yankees have an off day on Thursday and finish the first-half against arch rival Boston Red Sox, who have been playing better ball as of late. A series at Fenway Park is never easy, but the Yankees will have their top two pitchers at the moment on the hill and gives them a fighting chance to perform well.
The Yankees put themselves in a great position by reeling off win after win. They are not going to be able to coast into the All-Star break by any means, but they will not need to press either. If they can get through this stretch and lose no more than two games off their lead, the team will still be in a great position heading into the second half of the season with their ace set to return.
Looking back, not many would have predicted an 11.5 game turnaround in the standings in the matter of 36 games, but that is exactly what the Yankees have accomplished since late May. It couldn’t have come at a better time. It provided a buffer for not only the injuries they suffered to the rotation, but one for the rough road-trip ahead. Better yet, while it will be difficult on the road, the Yankees have the opportunity to kick in the teeth of two of their tougher competitors.
Their lead came with a flurry of wins no one expected. The increase of the lead in the last week may be even more surprising. At this point, no one should be shocked if they plow straight through the next six games and end the first-half on a positive note.
What do you think? Can the Yankees actually increase their lead over the next week or will they watch it dwindle on the road? Let us know in the comments.