The last week, in which our heroes went 5-1 against the rival Red Sox and dastardly Devil Rays, has been a physically and emotionally draining one for both the Yankees and their fans. Fortunately, while there are no off-days left in the Yankees season, their schedule does get decidedly easier starting tonight when the Yanks begin a stretch of fourteen games against the Blue Jays and Orioles.
But it is exactly that that concerns me about these four series against the weaker sisters of the AL East. The Yankees avoided a let down after taking two of three from the Red Sox, and they avoided a let down after both unloading 17 runs on the Devil Rays in the first game of that series and pulling out a one-run victory in Game Two. But in both cases they were facing a team that had made them angry, the Red Sox by virtue of the natural rivalry, last year's humiliating ALCS, the standings, and all of the accompanying baggage, and the Devil Rays by inexplicably pushing the Yankees around during the first five series between the two teams this year.
The Blue Jays and Orioles, on the other hand, have thus far minded their manners. After a hot start, the Orioles have tumbled to a .476 record, 14 games behind the still second place Yankees, and they haven't been seen 'round these parts since just before the All-Star break when they dropped a pair to the Yanks in the Bronx. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, have gone a very accommodating 4-8 against the Yanks thus far this season, most recently dropping three of four to the Bombers at the Stadium in late August, the only Blue Jay win in that series coming on what remains Mike Mussina's last game of the season, when the inflammation of his elbow became too severe for him to continue.
The fear, of course, is that after the fever pitch of their last six games, the Yankees will ease off against the Jays this weekend, forgetting that they're markedly better than the Seattle team that split a four game set with the Yanks two and a half weeks ago, and perhaps completely unaware that Toronto has a .545 Pythagorean Winning Percentage, which, if substituted for the Blue Jays' actual record, would rank them just two games behind the A's and Angels in the overall American League standings.
Then again, looking back over the Yankees' schedule, other than their struggles against the Devil Rays, the Yanks haven't lost a series to a team not currently in a playoff slot since they dropped two of three to the Mets in late June, and other than that Mariners series the only other split they've suffered over that span was the rain-shortened two-game set against the Orioles that immediately followed that Mets series.
What that tells us is that, over the last two and a half months, the Yankees have done their job against the lesser teams in the league, but simply winning these four series may not be enough to get the Yankees in the playoffs. Let's speculate, shall we?
Let's assume the Yankees will take two of three from the Blue Jays in each of their two match-ups and three of four from the Orioles in each of their two match-ups, an optimistic, but not at all unreasonable assumption. That would make the Yankees 10-4 over that stretch and would find them entering the finals series of the season at Fenway with a record of 93-66.
Now assume the Red Sox take two of three from the A's, Devil Rays, and Orioles and three of four from the Blue Jays. That would make them 9-4 over the same stretch and would put them at 94-65, a game better than the Yankees, entering that final series. They could then eliminate the Yankees with a series win. Meanwhile, the Yankees would have to take two of three from the Red Sox at Fenway to force a one-game playoff in the Bronx, thus effectively needing to win three of four against the Red Sox to continue on into the playoffs.
Meanwhile, assume the Indians take two of three from the White Sox and Devil Rays and six of seven from the pathetic Royals. That would make them 10-3 over this stretch and give them a one-game lead over the Yankees entering their final series of the year against the White Sox. The Yankees would then have to win one more game against the Red Sox than the Indians win against the White Sox over that final series to force a one-game playoff for the Wild Card as merely matching the Indians would eliminate them from the Wild Card.
Of course, the Yankees might be able to work their way back into the Wild Card if the White Sox collapse so badly that the Indians win the Central, but as the Yanks trail the White Sox by five games at the moment, that possibility is akin to shooting the moon in hearts and one the Yankees would be wise to ignore for the time being.
With all of this in mind, it would behoove the Yankees to mix in a sweep or two over the next two weeks. One thing's for sure, unless the Yankees totally tank over these next fourteen games, it's going to be an exciting two weeks, regardless of the inferiority of their opponents.
Tonight the Yankees send Randy Johnson to the mound against David Bush. Johnson is coming off of four straight quality starts, his best run of the season. His line in those four games:
28 1/3 IP, 15 H, 4 R, 0 HR, 6 BB, 26 K
More problematically, Johnson left his last start, that Sunday gem against the Red Sox, with a cramp in his left calf. Also, Johnson is 0-2 against the Blue Jays this year, though the first loss was his brilliant complete-game duel against Roy Halladay in April, which the Blue Jays won 2-0 on a two-run late-inning homer by Erik Hinske. The other game was one of those ugly mid-season games we'd all rather forget.
It's also worth noting that Bush is also coming off of four quality starts, in which he's produced this line:
28 IP, 22 H, 5 R, 2 HR, 5 BB, 22 K
Bush has faced the Yankees twice this year, turning in a quality start both times, though his bullpen blew the first game. In his most recent outing against the Yankees, he shut them out for six innings while striking out seven, picking up the win.
Should be a good one tonight. I just hope the Yankees are up for it.
Manager: John Gibbons General Manager: J.P. Ricciardi
Ballpark (2004 park factors): Rogers Centre (106/105)
Ted Lilly (activated from DL)
L - Gabe Gross (OF)
L - John-Ford Griffin (OF)
R - Guillermo Quiroz (C)
R - Shaun Marcum
1B Shea Hillenbrand
2B Aaron Hill
SS Russ Adams
3B Corey Koskie
C Gregg Zaun
RF Gabe Gross
CF Vernon Wells
LF Reed Johnson (R)/Frank Catalanotto (L)
DH - Eric Hinske
S - Orlando Hudson (2B)*
R - Alexis Rios (OF)
R - Frank Menechino (IF)
L - John-Ford Griffin (OF)
R - Guillermo Quiroz (C)
R - Ken Huckaby (C)
*will miss series due to an ankle injury
L - Gustavo Chacin
L - Ted Lilly
L - Scott Downs
R - Josh Towers
R - David Bush
R - Miguel Batista
R - Justin Speier
L - Scott Schoeneweis
R - Jason Frasor
R - Vinnie Chulk
R - Pete Walker
R - Brandon League
R - Dustin McGowan
R - Shaun Marcum
R - Roy Halladay
L - Russ Adams (SS)
L - Frank Catalanotto/R - Reed Johnson (LF)
R - Vernon Wells (CF)
L - Corey Koskie (3B)
R - Shea Hillenbrand (1B)
L - Eric Hinske (DH)
S - Gregg Zaun (C)
R - Aaron Hill (2B)
R - Gabe Gross (RF)