Aaron Boone argues with home plate umpire Marvin Hudson in the sixth inning against Minnesota Twins at Target Field.

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Keidel: Yanks Struggling With Crucial Red Sox Series Looming

Jason Keidel
September 17, 2018 - 3:54 pm

Had you circled September 18 before the MLB season, and were told the Red Sox and Yankees would be the best two teams in their division, you wouldn't flinch, wince, or even blink. Had you learned they would be two of the three best teams in the sport, you may arch an eyebrow. 

But no one west of Yawkey Way saw this coming: the AL East looking like the 1973 Belmont Stakes, with the Red Sox assuming the role of the redheaded colt. With both teams off Monday, they will square off Tuesday with Boston 11 1/2 games ahead of New York, looking back at the Bombers like a bored jockey who has all but lapped the field. 

The Yankees (91-58) can't even keep the unlucky handle as the winner in any division sans the Red Sox (103-47). All season the Yanks were just victims of Boston's historic regular season. But after dropping a home series to the Blue Jays, the Yanks are now three games behind the Houston Astros for the second-best record in MLB. And most importantly, they are only 1 1/2 games ahead of the Oakland Athletics (90-60) for that first wild card spot. 

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The Yankees have 13 games left to play, and six of them are against their Beantown tormentors. Not only would Boston love to drive a playoff stake through some pinstriped hearts, they can also clinch the division this week at Yankee Stadium.  (And they could do so without even starting their ace, Chris Sale.)

In this three-game set, the Yankees will start the three pitchers - J.A. Happ, Luis Severino, and Masahiro Tanaka - they feel have enough moxie and momentum to start in a playoff series. Indeed, if the Yankees end up playing in the ALDS, they would do so against the Red Sox. 

But rather than wonder whether CC Sabathia or Lance Lynn has earned that fourth spot in the playoff pitching rotation, fans are more likely taking a troubling inventory of the 2018 season. Not long ago, the Yankees were six games behind Boston and we wondered if some late-summer lightning, 1978-style, was in their future. Now the Yankees just need to stop vomiting victories, like the one they lost to Toronto on Sunday, a game they led until the bullpen (specifically Dellin Betances) blew it. 

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Sure, the Yanks aren't as potent without super slugger Aaron Judge and flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman, both of whom have spent a recent spell on the DL. But it doesn't explain this nearly two-month malaise. 

Not only did the Yanks drop two of three to Toronto, they just got home from a bumpy road trip, during which they lost two games in Oakland, followed by two more losses in Minnesota, a club playing for nothing but pride. On July 31, the Bombers were 68-37, five games behind Boston in the AL East. Since August 1, the Yankees are essentially a .500 team (23-21), including a including 6-8 mark in September.

Boston surely has incentive to beat New York, but the motivation is more cosmetic, icing on this 2018 cake of a season they've had. But the Bombers should be playing with gasping desperation. Not only because it's Boston, but also because they need wins just to make sure they host the wild card game. 

In 2016, the Yanks lost the AL wild card game to the Astros, blanked by Dallas Keuchel in the Bronx. But that club, like that season, was not ordained. This season is supposed to sparkle with the residual faerie dust spawned by last season. We thought the 2017 Yankees, while gifted, were a bit young to play with the big boys of baseball. Yet they came within one game of reaching the World Series. 

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The 2018 version is supposed to mature into a full pinstriped monster. They seemed to be getting younger, and better, by the month, with a sprawling army of stars surging up from their farm system. They had a booming batting order, a nuclear bullpen, and the ancestral karma that comes with being the Yankees. 

Instead of wondering how to elbow past Boston for the AL East crown, the Yankees are just hoping to reach Boston in October. And they may have to get there via Oakland. Not the itinerary we had in mind when we circled September 18. 

Twitter: @JasonKeidel

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