There are twenty games remaining on the Yankees regular season schedule, one more than the Red Sox and two more than the Indians. The Red Sox added a half-game to their division lead yesterday by defeating the Blue Jays in eleven innings thanks to yet another game-winning home run by guess who while the Yankees enjoyed their final off-day of the season. The Yankees will make up that game next Thursday when the Red Sox are idle, thus that frightening extra half-game that will stick to the Red Sox AL East lead over the next week and a half is illusory. The opportunity still exists for the Yankees to match the Sox win-for-win to keep the Boston lead at three games entering the final three games of the season in Boston. Should the Yankees then sweep that series, a single-game playoff between the two teams would be played at Yankee Stadium to decide the division.
The Indians, meanwhile, were shut out by Dan Haren and a quartet of relievers last night, thus dropping their half-game advantage in the Wild Card race. You see, while the Indians still lead the Yankees by a full game, that game is the result of the Indians having won two more games than the Yankees. The two teams are even in the loss column, which, by a certain strain of logic, means they are actually tied. Thus the opportunity still exists for the Yankees to match the Indians win-for-win over the remainder of the season, win the two extra games in their schedule, and finish the season tied with Cleveland. If that happens, a single-game playoff between the two teams would be played at Jacob’s Field to decide the Wild Card.
So, technically, the Yankees are still in control of their own destiny, even if that destiny now includes a one-game playoff win. Merely forcing such a playoff game against either the Indians or Red Sox, however, will be a monumental task for the pinstripers. To begin with, needing to sweep the Red Sox at home over the final three days of the season is a frightening thought, even though the starters for that series currently project to be Aaron Small, Randy Johnson and Shawn Chacon (though Chacon’s start could go to Mike Mussina as I’ll explain in a moment).
What’s more, the Indians have been the hottest team in the American League over the past week. Last night’s loss broke a seven-game winning streak that saw them sweep the Tigers and Twins, including a 4-2 win over Johan Santana this past Friday.
Meanwhile, the Yankees find themselves in Tampa tonight to play their final three games of the season against the Devil Rays team that has, er, bedeviled them all season. At this point it should no longer be necessary for me to recap the Devil Rays’ success against the Yankees this season. And any analysis of the overall success of the Devil Rays’ pitchers against the Yankee hitters is statistically obscured by the two 13-run innings the Yankees have dropped on the D-Rays this season (yes those innings can be factored out, but I lack the time, the patience, and the stomach to do so right now). That said, it is informative to note that the Devil Rays have outscored and flat out-hit the Yankees head-to-head even with those 26 runs in two innings included on the Yankees’ side:
D-Rays: .293/.367/.451 (.278 GPA), 102 R
Yanks: .280/.343/.474 (.273 GPA), 98 R
In addition, consider the fact that the Yankee starter and the two Yankee hitters who have performed best against the Devil Rays this season, Mike Mussina, Tino Martinez and Gary Sheffield, have all been sidelined with injuries of late. The good news is that Sheffield (.322/.349/.678, 6 HR, 22 RBI vs. TB this year) will start tonight at DH. Sheffield missed the entire Boston series with a mysterious muscle pull in his upper leg (it’s been variously reported as a quad, a hamstring, and a groin). As Alex and I were discussing on the phone this afternoon, you know that had to eat Sheffield up inside. The guy played all of last year with a muscle separation in his shoulder and a torn ligament in his thumb and almost won the MVP award. Do you think he would have missed the entire Boston series if that leg injury wasn’t something we should be concerned about? Hells no! Do you think he wasn’t going absolutely crazy having to sit through those last two games in which the Yankee offense produced a total of three runs? You bet your sweet bippy he was!
Having Sheffield at DH could actually be a plus for the Yankees in this series as it opens up right field to the team’s best defensive outfielder, Bubba Crosby, who, to Joe Torre’s credit, will indeed start there tonight, his second consecutive start in right field. Playing on the slick Tropicana Dome turf over the next three games, the Yankees would be well advised to dispatch Bubba Crosby to the outfield in all three games, even against the left-handed Mark Hendrickson tomorrow. Now that we’ve all had a good look at Matt Lawton’s defensive shortcomings, I can’t imagine anyone would disagree that the Yankees cannot afford to run him and Bernie Williams out there on turf against this fast and aggressive Tampa Bay team, and Gary Sheffield, particularly Gary Sheffield with a bum leg, would only be a marginal improvement.
To that end, having Sheffield at DH also keeps Jason Giambi in the field, where his bat has heated back up, producing two of the three runs the Yankees scored in the final two games of their weekend series against the Red Sox. Giambi has spent all of September in the field thus far thanks to the rib cage injury which has kept Tino Martinez out of the line-up for the entire month. According to Torre’s pre-game press conference, Tino could return to game action this week, which is actually an item of some concern as anything that pushes Jason Giambi to DH is a blow to the Yankee offense. Thankfully Sheffield will block him for the time being. I for one could deal with seeing the likes of Bubba Crosby, Matt Lawton or Ruben Sierra in the line-up in place of Tino as long as it kept Giambi in the field.
As for Mussina, the last of the Yankees’ injury brigade, he threw 45 pitches in the bullpen today and, though he’s still not 100 percent, will take another bullpen turn later in the week, and could eventually slot into Chacon’s spot in the rotation if the latter continues to struggle. That would make Mussina, not Chacon, the starter for the final game of the season in Boston. Myself, I’m nervous about a potential Mussina return, as the Yankees can’t afford to sacrifice a single game to get the rust off of him, even if it would make their rotation stronger over whatever portion of the season remained.
As for the Devil Rays themselves, their roster is unchanged from last week and they’ll be sending Doug Waechter to the mound to face Jaret Wright tonight. Waechter has a 3.38 ERA in three starts against the Yankees (21 1/3 IP, 20 H, 3 HR, 3 BB, 11 K), while Wright, eliminating his April start against Tampa as I believe he was less than healthy during that part of the season, has posted the following line in two starts against the Rays since returning from the DL:
14 IP, 12 H, 6 R, 1 HR, 5 BB, 4 K, 1.21 WHIP, 3.86 ERA
That’s good but not great. Still, it accounts for two of the Yankees five wins against the Rays this year.
Given some of their comments after Sunday’s remarkable 1-0 win over the Red Sox, it seems the Yankees are finally ready to not only take this Devil Rays team seriously, but approach this series as if it were against the Red Sox themselves. It’s about time, as there’s no margin for error and no room for a let down follwing the Boston series.