When Junichi Tazawa — Japanese for Brad Penny — and the Red Sox lost to the White Sox tonight, the Yankees moved one game closer to wrapping up the AL East. With 35 games left this year, their magic number is 30. While that six-game lead can sometimes seem small and sometimes seem large, if the Yanks go 18-17 the rest of the way, the Red Sox would have to go 24-11 just to tie in the East. I doubt this Sox club can play .686 baseball for five weeks.
Anyway, with the stretch drive upon us, the Yankees have a few goals ahead of them: They have to rest their regulars to make sure that everyone is as fresh as possible for an October run. They have to get their pitching in order. And they have to accomplish these two goals while winning the division in a way that inspires confidence among the fans and, more importantly, the players. For how well the Yanks have played lately, backing into the post-season just won’t cut it.
As the White Sox come to town for the last home set in August, let’s take a look ahead at the Yanks’ schedule. In September, they face some very good teams and some very bad teams. In between is an annoying and potentially dangerous trip to Seattle and Anaheim.
I miss the days of baseball when September used to be reserved for division rivals only. A West Coast trip in the second-to-last week of the season should be outlawed. But such are the way of things. The Yanks could very well be playing in Anaheim come the first week in October, and the team should be prepared for the long flight.
Take a look at how the Yanks’ remaining opponents break down by record:
As you can see, the Yanks play most of their games against teams at or above .500. Of course, had the White Sox lost on Thursday, these numbers would be flipped, but luckily for us, they did not. If the Yanks play just .500 ball against their .500 or better opponents, they would be 10-10 with 15 games left against bad teams. If they go 10-5 against the Orioles, Blue Jays, Royals — not an unreasonable assumption — they would finish the season 20-15, good for 99 wins. Technically, Boston could catch them, but it isn’t likely. Plus, I believe the Yanks can play better than .500 ball against their so-called “good” opponents. A series win against Chicago would get this stretch off on the right foot.
The key team in all of this is Tampa Bay. Recently ranked as the game’s best team in Beyond the Box Score’s SABR-minded power rankings, Tampa has given the Yanks trouble recently. They’re still clinging to the hopes of a playoff spot, and their season is hanging in the balance. These two teams play four at home starting with a Labor Day day-night double header, and Tampa will try to make things interesting.
In the end, I hate to count my AL East chickens before they hatch. I’ve seen far too many Yankee clubs sleepwalk their ways through September, and I won’t relax until the champagne is flowing. But I’d expect that party soon enough. Maybe it’ll come in Anaheim, but maybe it will happen at the best moment of September: with the Red Sox in town and on the field. I can dream, right?