Since the All-Star break, it was a given that for the Yankees to have any chance of making the playoffs, even as the Wild Card team, they would have to win 70 percent of their remaining games. Hopping into the Wayback Machine and pulling a 1978-caliber comeback to win the Division would entail sweeping the last two series with the Red Sox, or at the very least, taking five of six.
Mission accomplished on both fronts. The Yankees have put together five win streaks of at least five games to leapfrog seven teams and assume control of the Wild Card. A once-comfortable lead in that race dwindled to 2 ½ games over the weekend before the Cleveland Indians did the Yankees a favor Monday night. Thus, with 12 games left — all against division opponents with losing records — the odds of a 13th consecutive postseason appearance are in the Yankees' favor. Remarkably, a 10th straight AL East title is not impossible, especially with the Red Sox facing the Blue Jays, Devil Rays, A's and Twins, series where they could face Roy Halladay, Scott Kazmir, AL Cy Young candidate Dan Haren, and Johan Santana.
Following Monday's one-game swing, the possibility of the Yankees overtaking the Red Sox was the headline. As a corollary to that, ESPN.com's baseball page has an "If The Playoffs Started Today" table with the potential matchups. The Yankees would face the Indians. A division crown might mean a date with the Los Angeles Is Not in the O.C. Angels. As Yankee fans, if you had to flip a coin to pick the team's playoff opponent — "heads" for the Indians and "tails" for the Angels — wouldn't you snag a two-headed coin?
Regarding last weekend's head-to-head matchup, there were plenty of media notes on a fourth ALCS rematch between the Yankees and Red Sox, amid the playoff atmosphere that pervaded Fenway Park. With the Yankees winning two of the three games in dramatic fashion, those notes were justified.
What struck me about the Fenway series wasn't so much that the Yankees beat the Red Sox, but how they did it. Ace-level pitching has stifled the Yankees' offense all season; Josh Beckett proved that Saturday afternoon. But the Yankees bested three of the Sox' top arms, in Hideki Okajima, Jon Papelbon and Curt Schilling. Success against such elite pitchers bodes well for the postseason.
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About six weeks back I commented on the lack of historical context in some beat writers' postgame wraps, and some TV commentary. This weekend offered a 180-degree turnaround.
For example, in Monday's NY Times, Tyler Kepner noted the similarity between Jeter's game-ending catch Sunday night to the putout that capped Game 5 of the 2003 ALCS. None of the other beat guys had that particular nugget in their game pieces. (I should point out that the Times gives Kepner more room to add such information — between 700 and 1200 words, depending on the situation. Papers like the Post, Daily News and Newsday max out at 600-700 words, sometimes less.)
On TV, John Flaherty and Ken Singleton proved to be prophetic with the following comment during the Red Sox' half of the seventh inning, roughly 15 minutes before the Yankees staged their 6-run rally:
FLAHERTY: "As poorly as the Yankees have played, they still have a chance here. This game is 7-2, but it could easily be 12-2. A five-run deficit in this ballpark is not that difficult to overcome."
SINGLETON: "No. Just get your swing going toward the wall, get a few guys on base and start the merry-go-round."
Considering the Red Sox rallied from a six-run deficit to blister the Devil Rays only two nights earlier — although they began their comeback in the middle innings did so against a bullpen whose ERA is approaching Tampa's area code — that may not seem like poignant analysis. But it was poignant because it was proved correct, and the tone wasn't meant to sound homerish. It was stated matter-of-factly from an ex-player's point of view. Flaherty would probably have said the same thing if the Yankees had the 7-2 lead.
Other highlights to the weekend series on TV:
• Michael Kay blasting Terry Francona's bullpen moves Friday night in the sixth and seventh innings, primarily the decision to remove the left-hander Felipe López in favor Okajima, another lefty. "You can tell how important Terry Francona feels this game is. He's the one managing like he's trailing the Division by 5 ½ games. He's the one managing like this is a must-win. It's a must-win for the Yankees."
• Historical context alert: Kay outlining Papelbon's vulnerability by referencing A-Rod's ninth-inning home run off the sophomore closer in April when Papelbon entered the game to protect what was a 7-4 Red Sox lead.
Things I would have liked to see during the weekend's telecasts: • The elimination of the phrase "all-important loss column."
• A random Tim McCarverism where he's forced to say Bernie Williams's name. Let's all say it together: Bernie WEE-yums.
• Any of the Yankees announcers calling Bobby Abreu by his real first name: Bob (gets me every time).
(I did not see Sunday night's game, so I missed the patented Miller/Morganisms that surely occurred. Like the combined age of the starting pitchers being one year less than the number of years between Red Sox championships. Please enter your favorites in the Comments section.)
Most interesting quote of the weekend, at least, to me:
"There's no managing left. My job is to sit there and be a fan and be nervous like anyone else." — Joe Torre on his mood following his mound visit with Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning Sunday night
From the ESPN's Opinions Vary From Show to Show Files: • On SportsCenter Friday night, John Buccigross voiced over an AL Playoff Race graphic and effectively said the Sox, Yankees, Indians and Angels would be the four AL playoff teams. All that's left to determine is the seeding. … Sunday morning on "The Sports Reporters", Howard Bryant — a former beat writer for both the Yankees and Red Sox in the past six years — stated that the Yankees' postseason ticket isn't guaranteed yet.
From the Stephen A. Smith Bluster!@#$! Files:
"I don't care what A-Rod does in the regular season. I'm from New York. When you're representing this city, if you don't perform in the postseason, you don't matter." Smith added that A-Rod has never carried a team to the World Series and that he's not Derek Jeter. Truly revolutionary arguments.
I'd go on a Stephen A. rant, but despite his huffing and puffing, he's right, although adding Jeter to the comparison was unnecessary and tired. For the most part, I've echoed Smith's sentiments in this space throughout the season, albeit not as bluntly. Following Smith, Bryant coolly refuted him in a "yeah, but …" sort of tone, adding that the Yankees wouldn't be in position to claim a playoff spot without A-Rod's bat.
The merging of his regular season success and postseason disappearance over the last two years — lowlighted by three hits in the last nine postseason games and batting eighth in last year's swan song — will likely be the biggest storyline as the pennant chase begins.