One month ago, many people including myself were incredibly worried about the Yankees potentially missing the playoffs. The Bombers’ huge ten game lead in the division had dwindled down to one, as the Baltimore Orioles played their best baseball in 15 years. Not only that, but the Yankees themselves were playing absolutely terrible baseball, and many were calling for Joe Girardi’s head.
But by re-gaining some important sidelined players and taking advantage of an easy schedule to end the year, the Yankees came together and wound up making the playoffs and could clinch the A.L. East tonight with a win over the Red Sox. The calendar has now flipped to October, and this postseason is shaping up to be an uphill battle for baseball’s winning-est franchise.
As displayed in September, this Yankees team is not one to be taken lightly, and very easily could the club come together on all aspects and make a fierce run for their 28th world championship. For that to happen, the team will need to play as one unit, consistently producing by way of clutch pitching AND hitting – something we haven’t seen from the Yankees on a nightly basis really all year.
And ironically every time the playoffs roll around, the Yankees go about it saying, “it’s just another game on the schedule”. Yet for the past few years, they’ve played their worst baseball in October. Last year they couldn’t buy a run with men on base; and in 2010 their pitching (besides Andy Pettitte) tanked against Texas in the ALCS. Besides the glorious season of 2009, you can trace every Yankee playoff loss in the past 10 years to a lack of either clutch hitting/pitching, or both in the same series. Don’t even get me started about Jaret Wright or Chien-Ming Wang.
I’m not saying the Yankees lie about their approach to the postseason, but clearly something changes in them over the course of the days following Game 162 and Game 1 of the ALDS. They just aren’t the same Bombers we see throughout the summer.
Maybe this year though, that would be a good thing. No, a great thing.
I’m not saying it’s as simple as the law of averages, but the Yankees really haven’t been the consistent, overpowering force in the American League they normally are each regular season. Sure, they wound up on top of the division again, and you bet they were right there in the standings for the best record in Major League Baseball. But more often than not there was uncertainty and inconsistent play by New York. They’d sweep a series versus a pennant chaser, then lose 2 of 3 to a non-contender. The injuries piled up as well, largely the reason why the Yankees faltered in mid-August and nearly lost a grip on control of their playoff destiny.
Now, the Yankees are a much healthier and complete team then they were. Andy Pettitte, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira have returned and (for the most part) really haven’t skipped a beat. Not only that, but the past couple weeks the Yankees played some of their best baseball, getting hits with runners in scoring position that aren’t also known as “home runs”. Sure, they still heavily rely on the long ball, but guys who can’t crush a fastball 400 feet every night are learning to be better situational hitters, and looking to rather move a runner to third then trying to score him on one swing of a bat. As I mentioned, hitting with RISP has been the Yankees’ Achilles heel for most of this season and certainly a prime reason for their first-round exit last year. Hitting well now should have some level of a positive impact on how the Yankees swing the lumber as the playoffs begin in a couple days.
Not forgotten is also the pitching staff this year, which has had some streaks of success and streaks of utter failures. As mentioned earlier, the rotation is now re-stocked with the clutch southpaw Andy Pettitte returning from the freak injury he suffered in late June. He’s come back and shown no signs of slowing down, and is absolutely essential to any World Series run the Yankees want to make this year. If he didn’t come back from retirement, the Yankees may not have been back in the postseason.
The other pitchers who haven’t been gone as long – CC, Kuroda, and Hughes, all had solid seasons, Kuroda especially. From May on, he arguably was the ace over a hobbled and inconsistent Sabathia, posting a 3.34 ERA (as of the morning of October 3rd) with 15 wins. Hughes, as I tabbed him the Yankees “Comeback Player of the Year”, looked like his 2010 self here in 2012, hovering around a 4 ERA but putting in a number of quality/dominant outings. More importantly, CC has clearly re-gained his health and strength, as he finished the season with three outstanding starts following an up and down second half of the year.
Say what you want about them, but the Yankees’ bullpen still has many quality relievers who have postseason experience. That’s not something you can say about the Orioles and A’s, of course. It’ll certainly be bittersweet when instead of the Sandman entering, we have Rafael Soriano jogging out to some mamba music in the 9th inning. But he still did a fantastic job as the first successor to the great Mariano Rivera. Sori has been mostly automatic all year for New York, but of course, nothing is certain with closers in the postseason, so all we can do is hope Girardi doesn’t over-use him and he stays fresh enough to produce just as well as he did in the regular season.
The supporting cast, as I like to call them, also had good years, and should be able to transition into the fall. Set-up man David Robertson pitched to a tune of a 2.67 ERA, once again shutting down hitters and building the bridge to Rafi’s entrance in the 9th. Joba Chamberlain has emerged as the Yankees’ 7th inning man, returning back to pumping his 96 mph fastball and getting outs when needed. He’s nowhere near the superstar status he nearly achieved when he first burst onto the scene in 2007, but he’s definitely already had his share of moments in the playoffs and should be able to be relied upon to help the Yankees in those close game situations.
You’d figure the Yankees’ top flight starters of CC, Kuroda, and Andy should be able to get the Yankees to the 6th inning at the very least, but if not, you still have other options out of the ‘pen. Boone Logan, Cody Eppley, and David Phelps can all too contribute to the Yankees’ quest for another world championship.
All in all, this Yankees team is absolutely good enough to win it all. When they are firing on all cylinders, they are a very hard team to beat. The problem is, normally they aren’t. Stranger things have happened in the playoffs before, but the Yankees are going to have to do some quick soul searching and quick rebounding to try and play as a complete team and get those 11 more wins needed, for #28.