Derek Jeter will play a crucial role in the Yankees’ drive to October.
A win over the White Sox yesterday coupled with another Tampa Bay loss pulled the Yankees within 2.5 games of the second Wild Card spot. It’s the closest they’ve been to the postseason cutoff since July 29, at which point they were just five games over .500 and a mere shadow of the team they are now.
Then, they were still mired in a summer slump and slipping in the standings. The only reason they were hanging on, it seemed, was because other teams had yet to break away. By math they were only 2 ½ games out, but by all other tests the Yankees were nowhere near that close.
Now, the team is smack-dab in the middle of a late-season surge and headed the other direction in the standings. Since August 7, when they fell a daunting seven games out of the Wild Card race, the Yankees have passed two teams and are now nipping at the heels of the Orioles, who might want to warn the Rays as well. If 2 ½ games felt like a mountain at the end of July, at the start of September it has never felt smaller.
Part of that is due to the way the team is playing. The Bronx Bombers are once again living up to their name, smashing the ball with confidence and piling up wins at home. The span of play between July 29 and today has seen the Yankees jump seven teams in runs scored and compile an 11-3 record at The Stadium.
But that feeing of optimism now brewing in the Bronx also stems from what lies ahead. For a team needing to make up ground, the Yankees play an extremely favorable schedule in the final month. For the rest of the season, they are playing either a team belly-up in the water or one just ahead of them in the standings. The most any team can hope for entering September is to control their own destiny and the Yankees can certainly lay claim to that.
Including the next two games against the White Sox, the Yankees play 11 games against teams a combined 98 games under .500. That includes a series against the decrepit Houston Astros to close out the season, which, given the crowded Wild Card race, could be the answer to every prayer in Yankee Land.
The remaining 14 games come against AL East rivals Boston, Baltimore and Tampa Bay. The Red Sox might be out of a reach today, but next Sunday, after the two teams have played each other seven more times, there may be a new story to tell. But that’s not what this team is after. Not right now, at least.
Though it may go against Yankee scripture to aim for second, that’s where this season has brought them. (And if they achieve that goal, they can cleanse themselves of their sins by setting their sights on the World Series.) Four games next week against the Orioles and three games against the Rays two weeks after that grant the Yankees every opportunity they need to sneak into one door to open another.
It’s hard to attach a magic number to the wins column at this point, but if last season is any barometer, it will take no less than 91 to grab a Wild Card spot. Assuming they can win eight of 11 games against the White Sox, Blue Jays, Giants and Astros, the Yankees would need to take 10 out of 14 from their AL East brethren to get to 91 wins total.
That’s a record of 18-7 over their final 25 games, which is certainly realistic given the way they’ve played the past month. Since August 7, they are 16-7, and right on pace for September.
The Yankees can’t think like that though. They can set their sights only on the day at hand, their goal to win one game, tonight, and if they do that, then to win one more game tomorrow. If they take care of business on a daily basis, 18 wins will take care of itself. Though bigger opponents await, no game is more important for the Yankees right now than the one tonight against the White Sox.
Keep winning, and the mountain will continue to get smaller.