On July 18, the New York Yankees blanked the Toronto Blue Jays 6-0 in a rain-shortened game. Hiroki Kuroda pitched the seven-inning shutout, Mark Teixeira homered and the Yankees ripped 12 hits off Ricky Romero. The Yankees were cruising, having won nine of 11 and 16 of 22 games, and were leading the American League East by 10 games, on pace for 95 wins.
The hated rivals up in Boston already were turning into a bad joke, barely a rival anymore after the Yankees had taken three of four a few days before. The upstart Baltimore Orioles had won that day but had lost 13 of their pevious 19, slowly drifting into their usual pathetic irrelevance. The Tampa Bay Rays? Hey, never discount them -- they'd made a big comeback in 2011, after all -- but this wasn't their year, the lineup wasn't any good and the rotation wasn't as dominant as expected.
Yes, the Yankees were going to cruise to another division title. Print the playoff tickets.
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Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the modern Yankees dynasty is their numbing consistency. Sixteen playoff appearances in 17 years. Twelve division titles. Twelve 95-win seasons in the past 15. Yes, they have more money than Zeus, but money is no guaranteed road to success.
Just look at their neighbors to the north, who are going to miss their third postseason in a row and have won just one division title in 16 years. Look at the Philadelphia Phillies, the team with the second-highest opening-day payroll. The Phillies had a nice run, five National League East titles in a row, but age and injuries caught up to them this season, and they're struggling to finish .500. The Angels will have spent more than $300 million the past two seasons and another $104 million in 2010, and might have no playoff appearances to show for that.
The Yankees have kept their dynasty going, defying age and bad luck. They did miss the playoffs in 2008, a season in which they won 89 games. Yes, that was the season they gave 20 starts to Darrell Rasner and 15 to Sidney Ponson. That offseason, they reloaded with Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and then they won the World Series.
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The Yankees lost 5-2 to the Rays on Tuesday as Tampa slugged three home runs off Freddy Garcia, and a lineup that featured Raul Ibanez, Jayson Nix, Chris Dickerson and Chris Stewart failed to do much against Alex Cobb. The Orioles pounded the Blue Jays 12-0 on Tuesday as Zach Britton pitched seven scoreless innings and Mark Reynolds belted his fifth home run in five games.
The Orioles are now tied with the Yankees for first place.
"We're just having a good time and we're not putting pressure on ourselves," Reynolds said after the game. "Everybody knows the situation we're in but we're just taking it day by day and having fun."
Something tells me the Yankees aren't having a lot of fun right now.
Here's some data from Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information:
Since July 19:
Yankees: 19-25, run differential of plus-3
Orioles: 29-15, run differential of plus-37
Rays: 28-16, run differential of plus-84
As Katie points out, Nick Markakis returned from an injury after the All-Star break and the Orioles' offense has been vastly improved since. The O's hit .240/.302/.402 (BA/OBP/SLG) in the first half and .253/.322/.423 in the second (entering Tuesday's game). Markakis' .343 average and .902 OPS in the second half rank fifth and 13th, respectively, among AL hitters (before he went 3-for-5 on Tuesday). In their past 11 games, Orioles starters have nine quality starts and a 2.22 ERA.
Why not Baltimore?
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If the Orioles and A's are this year's miracle teams, that means we now have to consider the Rays grizzled vets, even if their $64 million payroll is higher than that of just five other teams. The Rays were a miracle in 2008 and a mini-miracle in 2011. We are no longer surprised.
Since the All-Star break, the Rays have a 2.45 staff ERA, which would be the second-lowest second-half ERA by an AL team since the first All-Star Game in 1933 (the 1972 Angels had a 2.37 ERA).
Pitching, my friends, pitching. The Yankees are relying on Sabathia's elbow to hold up, and the retread Garcia, and the inconsistent Phil Hughes, all the while hoping 40-year-old Andy Pettitte will return to offer a lifeline.
The Yankees look old, mediocre and beaten up.
Why not Tampa Bay?
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From 10 games ahead to pure panic. Yankees fans should be worried. Right now, they're the third-best team in the AL East. They're even with the Orioles, and the Rays are 1.5 games back, with a chance to cut the deficit to a half-game with a win Wednesday.
Sure, injuries. Sure, Alex Rodriguez just returned and Robinson Cano didn't play Tuesday and Teixeira is out. But that's what happens when you get old. Ibanez is old. Ichiro Suzuki is old. Andruw Jones is old. Curtis Granderson isn't old but has morphed into Dave Kingman in the past couple of months, a guy who hits home runs and strikes out.
The Yankees are struggling. The Yankees are not going to win the AL East.
The playoffs? Hey, it's still the Yankees; you never want to count them out. They have four games left with Tampa Bay and a four-game series this weekend in Baltimore, but the rest of the schedule is soft other than one series with Oakland -- six games against the sinking Red Sox, seven against the banged-up Blue Jays, three against the Twins. Even if the Orioles and Rays rise past the Yankees, New York can make the wild card if it can hold off the Tigers/White Sox loser and the A's and Angels.
I want to say the Yankees won't make it, that they're too old, overpaid and overrated. People in baseball often talk about digging deep. It's just something they like to say.
But I'll say this: Get out your shovels, Yankees.
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