The Necessary Nine

New York Yankees

In 2007, the Yankees faced a 12-game stretch that the Daily News believed would make or break their season by calling it the “Dirty Dozen.” In 2013, the Yankees faced a 14-game stretch before the All-Star break, which held the same challenge, that I called the Final 14. Both stretches presented times the Yankees were fighting for their playoff lives and needing to win in bunches to keep their season from turning meaningless. This season, before the All-Star break, the Yankees are in a different position, but playing a very significant stretch: the Necessary Nine.

I have been fortunate to have a baseball summer nearly my entire life. The last time the Yankees finished under .500 was 1992 when I was six. Since then, it’s been 22 straight over-.500 seasons with playoff appearances every season except for 1994 (thanks to the strike), 2008, 2013 and 2014. The 2008, 2013 and 2014 were good enough to keep my summers alive and string me along into believing they could overcome incredible injuries, but they weren’t good to give me a fall. And like Bobby Knight once told his Indiana team, “You will not put me in that f-cking position again.” I need a fall this year. I have to have a fall.

The 2015 Yankees are a weird team. They have the ability to start the year 3-6 and then go on an 18-6 run. They have been swept by the Rangers and have swept the Royals. They have lost two out of three to the Phillies at home and they have beaten Jacob deGrom, Felix Hernandez and Max Scherzer. They have been unpredictable and frustrating at times and dominant and unbeatable other times. But the one constant with them is that they have stayed at or near the top of the AL East for the entire season, which is something they weren’t able to do the last two years.

The “Necessary Nine” began on Friday night against Tampa Bay. With nine games against the Rays, A’s and Red Sox standing between the Yankees from the All-Star break and four consecutive off days, this is their chance to create separation in the division and take the Red Sox out of the race completely. The Red Sox have played better of late even with the worst rotation in the league, but they’re still six games under .500 (39-45) even if Bostonians want you to believe that record is reversed with their over-the-top optimism. A series win or another sweep in Boston this weekend would keep the Yankees where they are and send the city of Boston into an All-Star Game depression, allowing them to do something other than focus on baseball for the rest of summer.

Sunday’s loss to the Rays was the 82nd game of the season and the official start of the second half (the first post-All-Star Game will be the 89th game), and with the 8-1 loss, the Yankees are 44-38 and one game up in the division. The series win over the Rays was the first checkpoint for the “Necessary Nine” since it kept them on pace for the needed record over this stretch, kept the Rays at bay and kept the Yankees in first place and still one game up, which is where they were before Friday’s game, while taking three more games off the schedule. Next up is beating up on the lowly A’s before the important first-half finale in Boston.

But before the Yankees head to Boston, they have to take care of business at home against the A’s, a last-place team that already took three of four from them in Oakland at the end of May. And since the Yankees never miss out on facing an opposing team’s ace, of course they will see Sonny Gray in the series opener on Tuesday night. It will be the second time the Yankees have seen him, after just having seen Chris Archer over the weekend, C.J. Wilson the series before that, Dallas Keuchel the series before that and Cole Hamels the series before that.

The Yankees should win six of the nine and now that they have already won two, that means winning four of six against the last-place A’s and Red Sox. “Should” was never a problem in the pre-2013 Yankees world, but now it’s become a dangerous and powerful word that leaves Yankees fans puzzled after disappointing losses to bad teams.

I want to go back to when the Yankees took care of business against bad teams and games they “should” win turned into actual wins. I want to go back to when the Yankees being in first place at the All-Star break was a sure-thing. We’re almost there.