For the past month, the focus for the Yankees has been on the AL East race. And rightly so, as they started July up a half game and are now just two back in the loss column. The division is still very much up for grabs.
But lost in the shuffle has been how the Bombers haven’t separated themselves rest of the pack in the AL Wild Card race. After play on Monday, the Yankees are up just three games on the Minnesota Twins, current holders of the second wild card spot. Just 1.5 games behind the Twins stand the Los Angeles Angels, four back in the loss column of the Yankees.
And despite the loss on Monday, the Baltimore Orioles are just 1.5 back of a playoff spot. The Texas Rangers are tied with them despite selling at the deadline. Further back are the Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals, both within three games of the Twins and six in the loss column of the Yankees.
By taking 3 of 4 from Boston, the Yankees kept themselves in the division race and added some much-needed distance between them and the Twinkies. Yet we’re just a few days removed from the Twins being just a game back of the Yankees and the Angels and Orioles each had impressive second halves to stay in the race.
Sure, four games up in the loss column on a playoff spot is comfortable for the time being, but there are enough teams in striking distance to cause some uneasiness.
The Twins have an easy schedule for the last four weeks of the season, playing just six games against teams above .500. Three of those are at Yankee Stadium in two weeks. They also have seven against the last-place Detroit Tigers and two with the San Diego Padres. The Twins made up ground in part from playing an easy schedule, but it’s not as if their remaining competition is about to deter them.
The O’s, meanwhile, have 12 games left against current AL playoff teams while the Angels play a bunch with the Astros, Indians, Rangers and Mariners. The Rangers have three with the Yankees and then play in the AL West of the rest of the way. Each of these teams will be tested, but they’ll also have opportunities to move up, especially if the Yankees continue to play .500 ball.
While there are clear opportunities for the teams chasing the Yankees, there’s obviously no need to panic yet. Baltimore, Minnesota and Texas can use upcoming series against the Yankees to catch up, but the Yankees can create further distance with wins. Even splitting those contests is a win with time running out.
Despite lackluster pitching staffs, the Orioles and Angels have shown the ability to win games with their bats in the last month and each has added firepower (Tim Beckham and Justin Upton, respectively) since the All-Star break. The Rangers have shown resilience even with Adrian Beltre out and Yu Darvish dealt at the deadline.
What should keep Yankees fans sane is the talent gap in the Bombers’ favor. The Yankees have the best rotation and bullpen of any remaining WC contenders and likely have the best offense, too. None of these teams have a backend that can rival David Robertson and Dellin Betances, or a top four of Severino-Gray-Tanaka-Sabathia.
The Twins’ defense is impressive, particularly with Byron Buxton in centerfield every day and they boast strong young talent with Buxton, Miguel Sano and Jose Berrios. Berrios may be the one pitcher the Yankees least want to see in the Wild Card Game if it comes to that. However, their bullpen is highly beatable, as is the backend of their rotation. They even dealt their closer to the Nationals on July 31.
The Orioles and Angels have high-end talent in their everyday lineup (read: Manny Machado and Mike Trout, among others) to get hot, but, again, their pitching holds them back. The Yankees’ Labor Day comeback against Dylan Bundy and co. was a supreme example of this. Beyond the top contenders, the Mariners have the best lineup of any remaining WC hopeful, but they’ve used 39 pitchers and counting during a season full of injuries and disappointment from their pitching staff.
Beyond simply the high-end talent, the Yankees also have the most depth, even after Aaron Hicks’ injury. It’s the same depth that can win them the division and make them a legitimate World Series contender if they make the postseason.
But they have to make the postseason first and after going 17-16 in their last 33, that’s no sure thing. So when you’re scoreboard watching over the next couple weeks, make sure to not just look at the Red Sox, but also the wild card contenders. They may be closer than they appear.