With last night’s win, the Yanks reclaimed their familiar perch atop the AL East. It’s really the only race that’s going on in the American League this year. Looking at the standings if the season ended today, the Yanks would play the Texas Rangers and the Rays would face the Twins as their ALDS opponents. Yankee fans may fear Cliff Lee’s Rangers, and salivate over facing the Twins (who’ve they’ve owned in recent years) but either team would be a formidable foe. The Ranger lineup is dangerous, Cliff Lee showed what he can do to the Yanks last October, and Ron Washington loves to use that bullpen for a reason. It’s among the best in Baseball, tied with the Yanks relief corps that started the season so badly earlier this year, with the exception of Mariano Rivera. The Twins feature the 2nd best team ERA in the AL, Joe Mauer is one of the best players in the game and Liriano and (yes) Pavano can beat you in a short series. Yankee fans may not like Carl after his forgettable stint in pinstripes, but they should respect his ability. He pitched very well against them last year in the regular season and playoffs, plus in the 2003 World Series. If Morneau (who kills the Yanks) ever comes back, they’d be an even tougher opponent to beat. The Yanks will need a healthy and effective Andy Pettitte to have an edge over either team.
I must admit I’ve gone back and forth on this topic over the years. There’s certainly not enough disincentive to being a Wild Card, and so many Wild Card teams have won the World Series trophy that it can’t be viewed as a negative. But watching the games this past week you can’t help but notice why home games matter. The Texas series saw two walk off wins, one on a HR in the 13th inning by Nelson Cruz and another with a rare faux pas by the Great Mariano hitting Jeff Franceour with the bases loaded. Two days later, Reed Brignac hits a walk off HR in Tropicana Field off Sergio Mitre to end Monday night’s contest. If you don’t think home field matters after this past week of baseball, you’ve missed the obvious. Playoff games tend to be tight games where both teams feature their best pitchers and managers manage the game differently than they do during the regular season. That last AB is much more meaningful in those situations and can be decisive. But then again this past week of Baseball wasn’t played out exactly as it would have been in the ALDS. Joba would have pitched, Swisher would have played and a number of moves on both sides may have been altered. If Sergio Mitre sees the mound come October, chances are all other options have been exhausted and even then I’m still not sure Girardi would go to him. Not if the season was on the brink.
You can’t put winning the division over the health of your players, especially on a team with age at key positions like the Yanks. Further, with a playoff berth all but guaranteed for both the Yanks and Rays, it makes sense to play these games in September with an eye toward October, making sure key elements of your team are not only healthy, but well rested. I wouldn’t be second guessing bullpen moves at this point, Girardi’s made it clear with Joba that he’s not using him now so he has “some bullets” left for later on this year. A big part of why recent Yankee bullpens have performed well with less than stellar rosters (non-Mariano division) is the way Girardi has handled the staff. Regular work and regular rest is built in to the formula, promoting the health and effectiveness of the staff. It’s easy to criticize individual moves, especially after the fact if they don’t work out, but the big picture has to take precedence. Especially on a team like the Yanks that are all about October. The difference between the Rangers and the Twins isn’t worth killing yourself over, and you could lessen your chances putting the pedal to the medal now. Yankee fans saw some of the late Joe Torre teams sleepwalk through April and May, and then wear themselves out in August and September as they pushed for a playoff berth. Those post season failures were a big reason why the Yanks were lukewarm in bringing Torre back, and don’t think Girardi isn’t keenly aware of where Torre went wrong. Especially in a year where Girardi is on an expiring contract of his own. It would be nice to have that extra home game, but health and stamina have to come first.