So, the Yankees got swept by their potential ALDS opponents last weekend and I said don't panic. Then they went to visit their division rivals and potential ALCS opponents in Tampa Bay this week and dropped two of three. Suddenly the Yankees are 2-8 over their last ten games and in the last six days went 1-5 against two of the three teams they might face in the playoffs.
So, can you panic yet?
Panic is such a strong word . . .
I'm not all that concerned about what the last six games might tell us about the outcome of a potential playoff series against the Rangers or Rays. To begin with, three of the six games went into extra innings, and five were decided by one run. The cumulative score of the Rays series was 12-11 Tampa Bay. The only game in the last six decided my more than one run was a 4-1 loss to Cliff Lee in a game started by Dustin Moseley, and two of the extra-inning losses came when Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre gave up walk-off home runs, the latter being the one run by which the Yankees were outscored in the Rays series.
As I wrote last night, I don't expect Moseley, Gaudin, or Mitre to make the postseason roster, so the same thing that applied to the Rangers series applied to Game One against the Rays. To me, it was clear once Joe Girardi put Chad Gaudin into the tenth inning of a scoreless game on the road that he was willing to sacrifice that game to avoid overworking the relievers he'll actually need to count on in the postseason, and after Mitre gave up a home run to the first man he faced in the 11th, pitching coach Dave Eiland admitted that sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war.
That was a bummer after nine and a half innings of brilliant pitching from CC Sabathia, David Price, and a trio of high-leverage relievers, but it's also absolutely the right approach given the Yankees' position in the standings. Their primary goal right now is to have their roster at full strength for the postseason. With six games left against the Rays after Monday night's contest, there was little logic behind going so hard after that single win.
Still, assessing the Yankees' position coming out of Florida, one wonders if they might have lost more than that one battle. The Yankees arrive in Baltimore trailing the Rays by a half game in the East, a margin that could disappear as soon as Friday, but looking at the two teams' remaining schedules, that half game looks awfully large.
Setting aside the four head-to-head games the two teams have remaining in the Bronx next week, the Yankees play the Orioles thrice this weekend in Baltimore, the Blue Jays in Toronto thrice to open the final week, and the Red Sox six times, first home, then away. The Rays, meanwhile, also play three against the O's, but at home, three at home against the Angels, and seven against the awful Mariners and Royals, finishing the season with a four-game set in Kansas City.
To say it again another way, while the Yankees play six against the rival Red Sox, the team with the third best non-Yanks-and-Rays record in the league, the Rays play seven against a pair of teams with a combined .395 winning percentage. Further complicating matters are the facts that the Showalter Orioles took two of three from the Bombers in the Bronx last week and the Yankees are 7-8 against the Blue Jays on the season and 2-4 in Toronto.
That means the Yankees might have to sweep the Rays next week to have any hope of winning the division and thus of having home field at any point in the playoffs (remember the NL won the All-Star Game this year). The thing is, I don't expect the Yankees will sweep the Rays next week, so if homefield advantage is important to you, and it's not insignificant to be sure, particularly if you're playing one-run and extra-inning games in which last licks play such a large part, you can go ahead and panic.
And since you're in the panicking mood, you might want to ignore the fact that the Red Sox are now "just" six games behind the Yankees in the Wild Card race and have six head-to-head games remaining with the Bombers. A Red Sox sweep of the Yankees over those two series seems like at least as much of a long-shot as a Yankees sweep of the Rays next week, but it's worth noting that, while the Yankees play the Rays, the Sox play the fading White Sox, and that while both teams play the Orioles and Blue Jays, the Yankees face them on the road, while the Red Sox play them at home. That's particularly relevant for the two Blue Jays series, as the Jays are a .551 team in Toronto and a .455 team elsewhere.
I'm still not concerned that the Yankees' playoff spot is in danger. Six games with just 16 left to play is still a hearty lead, even with all of those head-to-head games remaining against the challenger, but there is a road to ruin the Bombers will have to be sure to stay off over the final two and a half weeks. Getting an effective Andy Pettitte back should help; he rejoins the rotation on Sunday. Phil Hughes' rejuvenation Wednesday night was encouraging, and the impending returns of Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher over the weekend should help as well, but the Yankees need to treat all four with kid gloves to assure their health for the postseason. Once again, Girardi and Eiland will have to gauge the importance of each battle in the context of the larger war, though their recent skid has made it more difficult to sound the retreat without risking full-out surrender.