The New York Yankees aren’t used to playing pressurized series in July. For a franchise with 27 World Series championships, the games that matter are the ones in October. But starting tonight in the Bronx, a whiff of fall will pervade the summer air as the Yankees welcome in the high-flying Orioles for a three-game set with more on the line than a few All Star votes.
Only five days ago, this series looked like a plank-walk for the Yankees. They had just been swept by the Orioles in Baltimore, in a series where both C.C. Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda took the ball. They were outplayed by a younger, springier club, and that on-again, off-again feeling of futility, of downright helplessness, had settled back over the team.
Five days later, fresh off a four game sweep of the Minnesota Twins, this series now feels like an invitation back onboard. The Orioles surely won’t extend a hand – no, they’ll be fighting the Yankees back every precarious step of the way – but where there was once a looming meltdown there is now a beckoning opportunity.
Entering Friday night’s game, the Yankees are 46-39 and 1½ games behind the second-place O’s. Their bats, led loudly by Robinson Cano – and isn’t that a celebratory refrain – finally seem to be sizzling at the same time, as the clutch hits and big innings that have eluded the team all season came raining down like locusts in Minnesota.
Against an Orioles team that ranks third in the majors in runs scored, the Yankees will need this offensive mojo to carry over. Consider that their projected starters are an unpredictable Ivan Nova, a struggling Andy Pettitte and a Bronx piñata Phil Hughes, and the importance of run production grows paramount.
But encouraging to know is that the Yanks aren’t exactly facing baseball’s stingiest team. The Orioles have given up the 4th most runs in the MLB, and for a team that just battered the ball in Minnesota, the sight of a ripe pitching staff is enough to make them drool. Even the macho professional Travis Hafner, who probably hasn’t drooled, cried or blinked since the age of two, has to be salivating discretely.
Baltimore’s best starting pitcher projected for this weekend is Chris Tillman, a big right-hander who has struggled against the Yankees in the past. In 8 career starts against New York, Tillman has been tagged for a .347 batting average against and a 7.27 ERA. Sandwiched around him are Miguel Gonzalez (Friday) and Jason Hammel (Sunday), two entirely hittable pitchers who the Yanks should be equally happy to see.
For Joe Girardi’s club, it’s the last series against a division rival before the All-Star Break. And here, the term rival isn’t used loosely. Sure, any enmity and strife between these two clubs might be young, but after a five-game playoff series last fall and a season-long game of leapfrog this year, the two sides certainly get more fired up to face one another than they did even two years ago. Add in the ever-briery dynamic of an upstart team threatening to displace an established one – in a manner so sudden it almost feels rude – and the feeling of tension between the Orioles and Yankees crystallizes.
Then there’s the fact that Baltimore has beaten New York in five straight. So all else aside, this series becomes an episode of self-validation for the Yankees, an opportunity for the aging sluggers to prove to themselves that, dammit, we can beat these guys. If they do beat them, and beat them twice, it will be their first series win against an above-.500 team since sweeping the Indians in the first week of June.
There’s more at stake, of course, than a monkey or two off their back. As of today, the Orioles own the second wild-card spot in the American League, with Texas holding the first. A series win for the Yankees, and they move within a half game of Baltimore; a series sweep, and they jump a game-and-a-half ahead. It’s visibly early to start discussing playoff positioning, especially with margins so slim, but if the depleted, hapless Yankees can make it to the All-Star Break inside the postseason picture, one would have to imagine they’d enter the second half with more confidence than pointing-to-the-bleachers Babe Ruth.
One would also have to imagine that Joe Girardi be awarded Manager of the Half Year on the spot.
The Yankees can assure their skipper of this hypothetical honor by closing the first half on a high note. With Kansas City and Minnesota coming to town after Baltimore, there’s no reason to think the Yankees can’t win eight of their last 10, and scoot 13 games over .500.
But it all starts with the Orioles.
Either the Yankees build on what they started in Minnesota and start tickling the trail of the Red Sox, or they backtrack once more to the juncture of Fine Baseball and Great Baseball.
It’s July in New York, but this weekend in The Stadium, it feels a bit like October.