We’ve heard time and time again that the Major League Baseball season is a marathon. The New York Yankees know all too well what it feels like to take a slow pace at the beginning, build some speed near the middle to gain ground on their opponents and then do their best to hold them off until the final sprint. The team has had three distinct seasons wrapped into one and the final push is now.
The Yankees were 21-21 at one point and everyone wondered if they were too old to manage a playoff push. Then they reached as high as 23 games over .500 on a few separate occasions, the first when they had their largest lead in the division of ten games with a record of 57-34. The last was back on August 19 at 72-49, but the lead had been cut to five games by that point. Now at 76-58, they hold a slim one-game lead over the Baltimore Orioles and sit 2.5 games ahead of tonight’s opponent the Tampa Bay Rays.
So, they played .500 ball for the first 42 games and stuck around with then first-place Baltimore. The Bombers went on a tear over the next 49 games (36-13) to build a massive lead considering it was July and recently have slowed considerably (though not necessarily because they are slacking off) the last 43 games at 19-24. There are 28 games to go and the Yankees need to find their sprinter’s shoes and some first aid kits to get them to the finish line ahead of the O’s and Rays. They have followed the marathon script perfectly (though it really doesn’t feel so good right now) and the tone in the clubhouse says a few things.
One, they are not panicking and two they aren’t all that surprised. This doesn’t mean they are happy with their play; surely there are even marathon runners who would attest that if it was an option to sprint from the beginning of such a race to the end they would do it. But, it just isn’t feasible. Desirable yes, but it won’t work all that often and shouldn’t be the approach taken.
The injuries have been at the forefront for the entire season, but the Yankees perseverance early on allowed them to build that lead. Unfortunately, they have yet to become a whole team all at once and maybe they won’t get there this entire season. It can be argued they never had a shot at being whole once Michael Pineda, Mariano Rivera and Brett Gardner went down for the entire season.
Even when they were winning often, it wasn’t with the core group of players that Joe Girardi anticipated, or the crop of starters and relievers he envisioned. That is the baseball season in a nutshell. Teams can’t and don’t expect for everything to go perfectly smooth. Each team has to accept the ebbs and flows of the season and hope that come September they have what it takes to either finish off a comeback or pull away from the crowd.
Teams want to enter the postseason on a high and blow through their opponents. The Yankees, despite their lackluster play of late, still have the chance to sprint to the playoffs. They are starting to get back each of the members of the middle of the order and at the right time. They continue to believe that they will get a top-notch starter in Andy Pettitte back before long. No matter which way you look at it, the Yankees have yet to have a run where each facet of the game was clicking together plus all of their better players were all on the field at the same and more importantly performing at their best.
What they have accomplished, with a slew of injuries tossed at them at seemingly each turn, is the ability to have a chance to use September and early October as a springboard into postseason. They hold the lead, not the Orioles or the Rays. Win tonight against the Rays and it’s a two game swing with them. Add an Orioles’ loss (wishing one as I type this) and just the one-game bump provides a different feel. Add another win tomorrow and soon the Rays are 4.5 back and who knows, maybe the O’s slip up again (I’m pushing it). Then the four-game series in Baltimore becomes one which the Orioles will have the pressure to win, instead of the Yankees looking to catch the O’s, as many think will happen. Wishful thinking for sure, but it’s a possibility.
The Yankees have by no means been resting on their laurels. They want to win each and every day and I don’t see a group that has thrown in the towel. They are stuck in a rut which tends to happen this time of season and unfortunately the injuries have prevented them from strapping on the sprinting shoes when it may have been best (when the lead was down to five on August 19 maybe). But, with Alex Rodriguez back, Curtis Granderson seemingly better and ready to play tonight, plus Mark Teixeira on schedule for a return at Camden Yards, the Yankees are lacing up and stretching out (literally and figuratively) for the sprint ahead.
At worst, the Yankees need to hold pace for just a few more days until their lineup is whole. At best, a well-timed comeback and/or a blowout in the next day or two and it will look as though the Yankees have turned the corner, come up over the hill or rounded the bend whatever analogy you’d like to insert. Remember this, the Orioles and the Rays were forced to make an early sprint because they HAD to. They’ve played great ball with a purpose; to catch the Yankees.
The Yankees took advantage when they could and built the huge lead; unfortunately running away with the division title was not a possibility. They’ve now reached the point where riding it out will no longer be enough. As each and every capable body returns to Girardi’s disposal, the ability to shift gears becomes easier. Get those shoes on boys the sprint is on and I hope you have enough in the tank to finish strong and in front.