I don’t think anyone, even the most arrogant of Yankee fans — am I being redundant when I say “arrogant Yankee fans? – thought the Yankees would be in 1st place in the AL East at the All-Star break. Certainly not after losing their big stud starter Michael Pineda before the season started and Mariano Rivera shortly after, not to mention the loss of Brett Gardner, who played just 9 games, and Joba Chamberlain, who hasn’t pitched all season.
And even the few fans who thought the Yankees would survive those catastrophes and contend for the top spot certainly didn’t think they would be in front by a whopping 7 games.
Partly, at least, this reflects a collapse of what was assumed to be
the strongest division in baseball. Baltimore, for the second year in a
row, has faltered, Toronto has proved to be not so talented as the
analysts believed, and the Red Sox have suffered not only a plague of
injuries but a devastating swoon by the mainstays of their pitching
Tampa, in 3rd at 7 ½ games back, is the puzzle. If there is one team
that might make a run at the Yanks in the second half, it will probably
be the Rays, who still have solid pitching.
Regardless of how the rest of the division has underperformed, most
of the credit has to go to the Yankees. No one, except for maybe
Robinson Cano, is having a superstar-type year, and both Mark Teixiera
and Alex Rodriguez are having sub-par seasons. But everyone on the team
is contributing something. For instance, A-Rod is playing an excellent
3rd base and has been running the bases brilliantly, stealing 9 out of
10. In fact, the Yankees, though they are not a base-stealing team,
have the highest base-stealing percentage in the league (tied with the
Angels at 81 percent).
This edition of the Yankees is about a lot more than just power. In
Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones, the Yankees have perhaps the two greatest
subs since Darryl Strawberry and Tim Raines. Chavez, still a powerful
left-handed hitter with 7 home runs, plays a smart 3rd base; Jones (who,
with his spectacular performance at-bat in the field against the Red
Sox last week, has probably worked his way off the bench and into the
lineup), has 11 home runs and may not yield the left field position even
when Gardner returns.
The Daily News’ Mark Feinsand correctly points out that most
of the teams that lead the league in home runs don’t go all the way in
the postseason – of the ten highest home run-hitting teams, only one,
the2009 Yankees, took the brass ring.
This is true, but I think it’s one of those colossal flukes you
sometimes find in baseball, like the fact that teams with sensational
rotations – such as last year’s Phillies – almost never win the World
Series. If C.C. Sabathia comes back 100 percent, the rotation should
remain solid for the rest of the season. There are no aces in the
Yanks’ rotation to match, say, the Angels’ C.J. Wilson and Jared Weaver
or even the Rangers’ Matt Harrison and Yu Darvish. But they may not have
to. If Pettitte returns strong enough to give, on average, 6 good
innings a game, the Yankees can shorten nearly every game to 7 or
perhaps even 6 innings because of their magnificent all-purpose bullpen,
which Girardi can use in hold situations, matching strength against
weakness for an inning or two until Dave Robertson and Rafael Soriano
If Joba can return in the last couple of months and pitch the way he
did last year – a 2.86 ERA – the Yankees will be even more fortified.
And if Mariano is recovered in September, as is now the rumor, then the
Yankees will be the first team in history to have three bona fide
closers in the bullpen.
Because C.C. was deemed not quite ready and Pettitte’s broken foot is
still mending, the Yankees lose an opportunity to match up with the
Angels this weekend. Still, Hiroki Kuroda, who pitches against C.J.
Wilson tonight, had an ERA under 2.00 in June, and Ivan Nova, who goes
against Weaver Sunday, has won 10 games and looks to be a budding
superstar. Only in Saturday’s game, which puts Freddy Garcia against
Jerome Williams, do the Yankees seem to be questionable; but Williams,
at 6-5 with a 4.46 ERA, is no ace himself.
Whatever happens in this series, the Yankees have already proven
themselves to be a gutsy bunch, much more so than anyone could have
predicted in the first month of the season. In 85 games, they have
played 71 times against teams who are .500 or better and have the best
record not just in the American League but in all of baseball. So far,
at least, that’s all that needs to be said.