Last August, the Yankees trailed the Red Sox by 5 1/2 games when they went to Boston for a four-game series. It was the Yankees’ last chance to put a dent into the deficit and they needed to win at least three out of four and cut their games back to 3 1/2 before the final 52 games of the season. Anything less than three out of four and it would be back to the one-game playoff for the second year in a row and third time in four years.
The Yankees were without Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez for the series, and J.A. Happ, who they had just traded for mainly because of his career and season success against the Red Sox, wouldn’t pitch over the weekend after getting sick with a rare illness. Despite the lack of Judge and Sanchez in the lineup, the Yankees opened the Thursday night game with three runs in the first and another in the second for an early 4-0 lead. But CC Sabathia didn’t have it and Aaron Boone waited too long to realize he didn’t have it and wasn’t going to find it. In relief of Sabathia, Jonathan Holder pooped his pants on the mound at Fenway Park as he faced seven batters and didn’t retire one of them. The Yankees lost 15-7 and trailed by 6 1/2 games.
The next day, Rick Porcello pitched a complete-game one-hitter. The Yankees lost 4-1 and trailed by 7 1/2 games.
The two losses in the first two games of the series essentially ended the Yankees’ chances at the division, but just for good measure, they were shut out for eight innings by former Yankee bust Nathan Eovaldi in the third game of the series in what would be another 4-1 loss. In the series finale on Sunday Night Baseball, the series and Yankees’ division chances hit rock bottom when Aroldis Chapman blew a three-run, ninth-inning lead with three walks and a single coupled with a Miguel Andujar error. The Yankees would lose in the 10th after Jonathan Holder gave up a single, wild pitch, intentional walk and game-winning single, all with two outs, essentially pooping his pants on the Fenway Park mound for the second time in roughly 72 hours. The Yankees lost 5-4, were swept in the four games and left Boston four games worse than they arrived, trailing by 9 1/2 games in the division with 52 to play.
The Yankees’ inability to win the division forced them to play one game to reach the ALDS, use Luis Severino in that one game, then go to Boston for the first two games of the ALDS and face a rested Red Sox team, which was able to coast for the last two months of the season, and a rested Chris Sale, as the Red Sox were able to line up their rotation for the Yankees. Had the Yankees won the division, maybe the Red Sox lose the one-game playoff to the A’s or maybe they have to fly across the country to Oakland for the one-game playoff and then fly back across the country to New York for the ALDS. Either as the first or second wild card, the Red Sox would have had to burn Sale in the one game and wouldn’t have been able to use him until Game 3 and then would have only been able to start him once in the five-game series. Unfortunately, none of this happened.
Maybe the 2018 Red Sox would have won the World Series whether or not the Yankees won the division and whether or not Aaron Boone managed Games 3 and 4 of the ALDS like he had been introduced to the game of baseball earlier that week. The Yankees had their chances to stay in the division race and win it, but they didn’t take care of business against awful opponents, which the Red Sox did, they didn’t show up with the season on the line in Boston, which the Red Sox did. That was the difference in 2018, not the injuries or the Red Sox being some sort of team of destiny.
This season has been different. The Yankees have used a replacement roster the entire season, haven’t had Luis Severino, Dellin Betances or Didi Gregorius for a single game, have had Giancarlo Stanton for three games, haven’t had Aaron Judge since Easter weekend, didn’t have Aaron Hicks for the first six weeks of the season, lost Miguel Andujar to season-ending surgery and have watched Gary Sanchez, Clint Frazier, James Paxton and now CC Sabathia all land on the injured list at some point. The Yankees’ starters have gotten hurt, their backups have gotten hurt and their backups’ backups have gotten hurt. Yet somehow, they are in first place in the AL East with a 36-19 record and plus-74 run differential. They have two more wins than the Rays, but are tied with the Rays in the loss column, and they lead the Red Sox by eight in the loss column.
The 2019 Yankees’ success has been built on their ability to rack up wins against teams under .500 (23-9) and play good enough against teams .500 or better (13-10). It’s the formula that led to their success in the ’90s and 2000s, and one they have been trying to get back to in recent years. It’s the same formula which led to the Red Sox’ division title last season.
The AL East is a three-team race this season. It would have been one last season too if there had been any games left as the 90-win Rays became unbeatable late in the season. This year, the Rays didn’t wait to put it all together, they started winning on Opening Day and haven’t stopped since. The last thing the Yankees want to be part of is a three-team race, in which one team is headed for the ALDS and the runner-up and possibly also second-runner up are headed to the one-game playoff. I’ve had enough of the one-game playoff over the last four seasons, and I don’t want the first season in this current championship window to have to go through one.
The goal is to win the division, and the easiest way to outlast the Rays and Red Sox is to first turn the three-team race into a two-team race. Force the weaker team into the wild-card picture and worry about scoreboard watching one opponent throughout the regular season. The Yankees’ and Rays’ hot starts combined with the Red Sox’ disastrous start have made it possible for the Yankees to turn the AL East race into a two-team race as early as this weekend. The Yankees can do to the Red Sox what the Red Sox did to them in a four-game series last year, just much earlier in the season.
The Yankees’ eight-game lead over the Red Sox in the loss column through 55 games is shocking. I never expected the 2019 Red Sox to win the way the 2018 Red Sox did since I never expected the 2018 Red Sox to win the way they did, but I certainly didn’t see them battling to stay above .500 after two months. The Yankees have a chance to end the Red Sox’ division chances over the next four days.
As of now, the Yankees are on pace to win 106 games and they are getting closer to getting Gregorius, Judge and Stanton back in the lineup, Betances in the bullpen and Severino in the rotation. For as good as they have been, they are about to get deeper and better. The Red Sox are on pace to win 84 games, which won’t last, but even if it did, you can’t fault them. They won the World Series last year. They earned the right to have a down year.
If the Yankees played one-game-over-.500 baseball for the rest of the season (54-53), they would finish with 90 wins. The Red Sox would have to go 61-45 just to tie them in that scenario. The Red Sox would have to play .575 baseball for the rest of the season if the Yankees played as poorly as .505 baseball. Maybe the Replacement Yankees would have played .505 baseball or worse over 107 games. The Real Yankees, which are close to being a thing, aren’t going to.
If the Yankees were to win three out of four this weekend, those numbers become even more ridiculous. Then the Yankees could go 52-51 (.505) the rest of the way and the Red Sox would have to go 61-41 (.598) to tie them. If the Yankees sweep? They could go 52-51 (.505) and the Red Sox would have to go 63-39 (.618).
Even if the Yankees were to win two and lose to in the four-game series, they wouldn’t lose any ground to the Red Sox, and four more games, and four more games each other, would be off the schedule. If the Yankees were to disappointingly lose three of four, or embarrassingly get swept, they would still have either a six- or four-game loss column lead.
The Yankees have built themselves a nice cushion to work with and an impressive loss column lead when it comes to the Red Sox. Now it’s time to extend that lead, end the Red Sox’ division chances and turn the focus for the remaining four months of the season to the team I have said for Yankees fans to be worried about all along: the Rays.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is available!