The AL East Is Over

Alex Rodriguez

Wednesday and Thursday night felt like playoff games. The Yankees had two games remaining against the Blue Jays with a 3.5-game deficit in the AL East with 13 games left in the season. Both games were must-win games for the Yankees when it came to winning the division with Tuesday being Game 6 of a playoff series they were trailing 3-2 in and Wednesday being Game 7 if they were to win on Tuesday. Lose either game and the AL East would be over.

The Yankees won on Tuesday after blowing a 2-0 lead and a 3-2 lead thanks to a Greg Bird three-run home run in the 10th inning. Joe Girardi used Justin Wilson (seven pitches), Dellin Betances (20 pitches) and Andrew Miller (42 pitches) to pitch the last four innings after Luis Severino gave the team an impressive six-inning, two-run effort, setting the stage for an AL East Game 7 on Wednesday night.

I didn’t want Ivan Nova to pitch Wednesday’s game, but there wasn’t another option. After Nova’s return sent Adam Warren to the bullpen, Nova’s incompetence sent Warren back to the rotation, so he wasn’t an option for the game, and with Masahiro Tanaka nursing a hamstring injury and Nathan Eovaldi being shut down, Nova won the start by default. But like that John Sterling saying goes, 11 days after Nova couldn’t get through two innings against the Blue Jays, there he was putting up zero after zero against them in Toronto with the chance to win the division over the final two weeks of the season.

With two out and no one on in the sixth, Nova’s 110th pitch of the night was a ball and Russell Martin went to first on a six-pitch walk. I told my girlfriend, “That’s it for him,” and sure enough, YES panned to Joe Girardi walking up the dugout steps. Girardi went to the mound and took the ball from Nova, who looked as good as he did in Game 1 (but kind of Game 2) of the 2011 ALDS against the Tigers, and then Girardi ruined the game.

First, Girardi gave the ball to James Pazos, who has faced 14 Major League batters in his career, to face the left-handed hitting Ryan Goins. On an 0-2 pitch, Goins ripped a line-drive single to center and Martin ran to third. After four pitches, Pazos was pulled.

Next, Girardi went to Caleb Cotham, the 27-year-old rookie, who has allowed 11 hits (two home runs) and five earned runs in eight career Major League innings, to face Yankee killer Kevin Pillar. On the first pitch, Pillar singled up the middle, Martin scored to give the Blue Jays a 1-0 lead and Goins went to second. Cotham stayed in to face the Blue Jays’ No. 9 hitter Ezequiel Carrera and he walked him on six pitches. He finally got out of the inning when he got Ben Revere to fly out to left on a 2-0 pitch though if a lesser defender than Brett Gardner had been out there, it might have been a bases-clearing double or triple.

The Yankees were unable to score in the top of the seventh, despite having two on and two out for Dustin Ackley, who hit a line drive right to Pillar in center. The Yankees had still been held scoreless and trailed 1-0, but Marcus Stroman’s pitch count was at 95 and the Blue Jays would have to turn the game over to the their shaky pen and the one flaw of their team, which had blown the game night before and had blown a three-run lead to the Yankees in Toronto in August.

Due up for the Blue Jays in the seventh were AL MVP Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Three right-handed hitters and the heart of the best order in the entire league. In an ideal world, which reliever would make the most sense to face them? Betances, obviously. But unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in Girardi’s world where relievers have set innings and because Miller was unavailable, Betances was the closer for the night and ninth inning was his and maybe an out in the eighth inning. But not the seventh inning. Not the inning that made the most sense for the best right-handed reliever in the world to face three of the best right-handed hitters in the world in a row. Instead of Betances, Girardi brought in Andrew Bailey, who has thrown five innings in the Major Leagues since July 12, 2013. In the last 26-plus months, Bailey has faced 22 hitters in the majors, yet here he was being asked to hold a one-run deficit against the best 2-3-4 in the majors.

Donaldson crushed a 1-1 pitch to left field for his 40th double of the season to lead off the inning before Bailey got Bautista to ground out for the first out of the eighth. With Donaldson on third and one out, I thought it made the most sense to intentionally walk Encarnacion and then bring in Wilson to face Justin Smoak, which would force Smoak to turn around and hit from the right side. I thought Girardi was on the same page as me when he called for the intentional walk of Encarnacion, but then he left Bailey in.

The move worked out momentarily as Bailey struck out Smoak with Encarncion stealing second on the swinging third strike. Two on and two out for Russell Martin, the former Yankees catcher, who they let leave after the 2012 season because they felt Francisco Cervelli could be their catcher of the future, and who has played in the postseason every year (and will again this year) since leaving the Yankees, while they haven’t played in it once since he left. Martin fell behind 1-2, but after working the count to 2-2, he got a 94-mph fastball from Bailey right down the middle and he turned it around and ended the Yankees’ division hopes in one swing.

Outside of the All-Star break, the 2015 Yankees have been together and playing together since mid-February, more than seven months ago. And after those more than seven months that included the six-week spring training and now 151 regular-season games, it was James Pazos, Caleb Cotham and Andrew Bailey, who have now pitched a combined 17 innings for the Yankees, that decided their 2015 postseason fate.

How could Girardi let those three pitchers decide the biggest game of the season? According to what Girardi told reporters after the game, he was planning to use Justin Wilson in the eighth and Dellin Betances in the ninth with Andrew Miller unavailable. But how is it possible that Girardi managed for a situation that never presented itself and never actually existed in the biggest game of the season? How is that he was managing ahead in a tie game and then a game the team was trailing in? How could he play for the next inning with the division hanging in the balance in the inning right in front of him?

Maybe I shouldn’t care that the Yankees aren’t going to win the East and won’t go straight into the ALDS. Girardi and Brian Cashman clearly don’t. Girardi made that clear with his pitching moves on Wednesday, and Cashman made it clear the other day when he said he didn’t care how the Yankees got into the playoffs, but just that they got in. It was a fitting comment from the general manager of a team that made no trade deadline moves other than to acquire Dustin Ackley and whose team blew an eight-game lead since the deadline. It’s hard to blame Cashman for saying, at this point, that he is content with a wild-card berth since Cashman saying he would be disappointed if the team didn’t win the East would be him saying he’s disappointed in himself after the Yankees gave away their division lead in less two weeks in August. So of course he acted as though the wild-card berth is just as good as winning the division.

The wild-card berth is just as good as winning the division if you actually win the wild-card game. Right now, the Yankees would play the Astros in the one-game playoff, but the Twins and Angels are both within 1.5 games of the Astros, so the Yankees’ opponent is anything but finalized. The best-case scenario for the Yankees if they’re able to hold on to their four-game lead for the first wild-card spot is that those three teams have to go to Game 162 or longer to figure out who the second wild-card team is, so that they can’t set up their best starter to face the Yankees.

Over the next two weeks, outside of actually clinching, the Yankees’ top priority will be to give Tanaka as much rest as possible while also keeping him sharp and lining him up to start on Tuesday, Oct. 6 at the Stadium. The Yankees aren’t catching the Blue Jays now and the focus needs to be on preparation for 12 days from now. Some people might hold on to the pipe dream that the Yankees could overcome a 3.5-game deficit in 11 games to win the East and go straight through to the ALDS, but it’s not happening.

The Yankees needed to win two out of three in Toronto to have a chance at the division and with Girardi managing Wednesday night’s game as if it were some throwaway game with a postseason berth already clinched, the race for the division is over. The Yankees are going to the one-game playoff.