It's the time when the aging Pinstriped animal, aging and wounded, trampled on by younger, fleeter rivals, is left for dead. It's the months when the Voice of Flushing gloats and the Boston gentry snicker, and from the bays of Tampa to the lakes of Minnesota, the upstart revels in a premature victory. It's the moment when the clowns at Bristol College and the apparatchiks at Pravada New England cast-off their disguises to sing eulogies for Bombers of the Bronx.
But it's also the time when the slumbering Pinstriped Monster awakens. Lying in wait, husbanding its energy and conserving its pace, it shakes off its torpor and accelerates, summoning reservoirs of will and mettle and resilience, kicking into high gear and sprinting to the finish line.
What time is it? Consult the history books. It's time for the Yankees Colossus to feed. Now is the time for him to own.
But will the 2008 incarnation prove worthy of the pedigree? Does this old team-- riddled with injuries, saddled with a makeshift rotation and chafing under a new battery-- old but beloved; beloved because human and not machine, beloved because erratic and flawed, beloved because it has taunted death and lived unto October more times in recent memory than we should ever dare have asked of her. Does it have enough left for the final stretch? Or is it too much to ask for one last glorious finish while the venerable stable bearing her name still stands before she must move on to greener but less hallowed pasteurs?
THE ROAD THROUGH PERDITION
Of this we can be certain-- the road there will task this team more than any in recent memory.
AL East leading Tampa has yet to wither. And with a pitching staff possessed of a 3.74 ERA tied for second in the AL, no dark clouds loom on the Ray's horizon. The Red Sox, on the other hand, with a dexterous balance of fiery youth and seasoned age, have weathered grave injuries, a weak and erratic bullpen, and the maelstrom Manny's presence created and then left in its wake. They lead the wild-card race and the division is theirs for the taking.
Meanwhile, just a little Chicago muscle earned gratitude in New York by throttling Cleveland and Detroit, another upstart Minnesota team no one bargained for, least of all their owner, Ebeneezer Scrooge himself, has laid its own claim to the title and with it, the consolation prize.
Worst of all, Baseball's scheduling Gods conspire against history's repetition. They send the Yankees, over the next month, not once but twice, to Disneyland's House of Hell. The Yankees play their Left Coast nemesis from August 8-10 in the middle of a ten game road trip commencing in a one-hundred degree Texan purgatory and concluding inside Minnesota's glorified strip mall and then have to rehearse the Herculean task less than four weeks later, beginning on Labor Day.
ON THE ROAD
In fact, 26 of the Yankees next 35 games are on the road and with the exception of Seattle, against formidable opponents besides. They play in Anaheim for 6 games; in Texas for 4; in Toronto, Baltimore, Tamap and Seattle for 3 each; and in Detroit for a make-up game. In between, they play three games each against KC, Boston, and Toronto at home. That amounts to one truncated three game homestand and a brief six game one interposed between two trips out West.
Compare its rigor to their rivals' remaining schedules. The Red Sox, for example, don't travel to the West Coast again this season. While the Rays, on the other hand, fly west of the Rockies only once more, however to Seattle and Oakland only, without a stop in Disneyland. The Rays three remaining games against the Angels will be played at home.
I list the Yankees', Rays', and Red Sox's remaining opponents below.
- KC -- 3
- CWS -- 4
- Tex-- 4
- LAA -- 6
- Min-- 3
- Sea-- 3
- Det-- 1
- Bal-- 6
- TB-- 6
51 Games remaining-- 19 games at home, 32 games on the roadRED SOX
- KC -- 3
- CWS-- 7
- Tex-- 6
- Cle-- 4
- Tor-- 12
- Bal -- 6
- NYY-- 6
- TB -- 6
50 games remaining-- 25 games at home, 25 games on the road
- CWS- 3
- Tex-- 3
- Det - 4
- Oak-- 3
- Cle-- 3
- Min- 4
- Bal-- 7
- Boston-- 6
52 games remaining, 22 at home, 30 on the road.
ECLIPSING THE RAYS
The above comparison hardly favors the Yankees. In fact, of the three divisional rivals, the Yankees very well may have the most treacherous schedule of all, with the Rays, a close second. The Rays and Yanks spend a nearly equivalent amount of time on the road, where the Yankees have excelled the Rays. The Rays play .451 ball away; the Yankees, .510.
However, the rigor of the Yankees' road schedule-- including one 10 game period without an off day and one sixteen game period, each with stops in the House of Hell-- still surpasses the the Ray's. What's more, the Rays begin the final stretch six lengths ahead.
The comparative ease of the Red Sox schedule-- 50% of which are at home-- should make them odd-on favorite to repeat as division champions. The two teams that can derail them, the Blue Jays, who play them 12 times, and the White Sox, enmeshed in a division race of their own, who play them 7.
At the moment, the real threat to the Yankees' playoff chances, then, would appear to be the Rays. (The Twins could challenge as well, depending on how much Liriano bolsters their rotation.) And what distinguishes the Rays, apart from the 6 game lead in the loss column at the moment, is the Rays' superior pitching. (In fact, the Yankees and Rays possess identical Pythagorean records, the Yankees at 61-50, the Rays at 60-50-- that is, the Yankees, partly, compensate for the Rays superiority in pitching with greater offensive production. No real surprise there.)
To be more precise, however, the real disparity between the two team lies less in their pitching staffs than in their starting rotations. Their bullpens actually have performed comparably. The Rays' bullpen has posted a 3.43 ERA in 314.2 IPs; the Yankees' bullpen, a 3.64 ERA in 366 IPs.
Among the starting rotations, on the other hand, the differences pale. The Rays starting 5 has a 3.88 ERA and averages 6.1 IPs per game; Yankees has 4.41 ERA and averages 5.6 IPs per game. But closer scrutiny reveals that the variation in their third, fourth, and fifth starters' performance accounts for most of it.
- Joba's 2.24 ERA vs. Kazmir's 2.89
- Mussina's 3.44 ERA vs. Garza's 3.56 ERA
- Pettitte's 4.18 ERA vs. Shields 3.63 ERA
- Ponson's 4.81 ERA vs. Jackson's 4.20 ERA
- Rasner's 5.23 ERA vs. Sonnastine's 4.58 ERA
The Rays' 3rd, 4th, and 5th starter each have surrendered about .6 less runs per inning.
An obvious solution is one the Yankees already are considering. Some one has to supplant Rasner in the rotation. What's more, he has to perform like a fourth starter or better. Whether this pitcher is Ian Kennedy or Phil Hughes or Alfredo Aceves or Jarrod Washburn, the Yankees have to find him and find him fast. Too many more games in which their starter surrenders 5 or more runs in the first three innings and Ruth's House will indeed host its last game on September 21st. Such a move would have the added benefit of re-assigning Ponson to the fifth starter spot where his performance better suits him.
Then, too, Andy Pettitte cannot reprise either of the two dreadful outings he had to open the July 3rd series against Boston, in which he yielded 5 earned runs in less than five innings, and this last home series against Anaheim, where he yielded nine. Other than those two outings, Pettitte's been exceptional, posting a 2.29 ERA over 55 innings since June 12th. However, if Pettitte has another 10 outings this season, the Yankees cannot afford him to falter like that again. The Yankees need a quality start from Andy-- defined as 3 earned runs or less over six innings-- practically every time he toes the rubber.
If the Yankees can accomplish as much-- fill their rotation's fourth hole and stabilize Andy Pettitte -- without their bullpen or their offense regressing, the AL's fourth playoff spot will come down to the wire and the Yankees will find themselves in a photo finish.