Keidel: Tight AL East Will Prepare Yankees Well For October Baseball

Jason Keidel
May 15, 2019 - 1:40 pm
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On April 17, the Yankees were 8-9 and 5 1/2 games behind the AL East-leading Tampa Bay Rays. Even more startling, the World Series champion Boston Red Sox were in last place with a record of 6-13, and were 8 1/2 games behind the Rays.  

Since then, the Yanks have gone 16-7, and are one game out of first, while the Red Sox have gone 16-8, including wins in eight of their last ten games, and are four games back.

What first looked like a division in disarray, and a whole lot of chalk choking by Memorial Day, is back to its ornery best, going from one club over .500 to three such clubs. And the AL East will only get tougher as the Yankees' MASH unit returns to action, and Boston's pitching continues to returns to form.

Even as they play baseball in a state long devoted to football, with a disfigured ballpark that rarely fills with fans, the Rays continue to be a portrait of grit and guile - a low-budget, small-market team that doesn't wince at the sight of the sport's blue bloods. While the Yanks and Sox routinely play before robust crowds, the Rays' average attendance is about 14,500, second-worst in the sport, just ahead of their Florida neighbors, the Marlins. (The Bombers and Red Sox host an average of 39,000 and 34,000 fans, respectively.) Even with the rather unfriendly confines of their home park, the Rays have the best road record (13-5) in MLB. Their pitching also has a microscopic .215 BAA, second-best in the majors.

You could argue that the Yankees' rise back up the standings - including taking two of three from Tampa last weekend - is even more impressive than if they had darted out to the 18-2 or 17-3 start that many predicted. We thought they would feast on the raw meat of their opening schedule and leave the AL East choking on their faerie dust. But even with 13 players often on the IL, the Yanks have willed their way to contention - a testament to their toughness and all the talent layered across their minor league system.

Boston's rotation, which was so sturdy while they won last year's World Series, was looking like it had forgotten how to find home plate. Yet much of their staff is slowly regaining their 2018 form, and they now lead MLB in strikeouts, with 420. Chris Sale, who was brutalized in April, pitched an eye-popping gem last night, becoming the first pitcher in MLB history to record 17 strikeouts in seven or fewer innings. Boston lost to the Rockies in extra innings, but the far more comforting story was Sale.

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And their loaded lineup isn't still hibernating. On April 16, the Red Sox had scored 74 runs while hemorrhaging 114. Since then they have outscored their opponents, 150-84. Boston was just too good to be so bad, toiling in last place, below that I-95 punchline in Baltimore. They are, by any objective measure, back to winning form, if not Fall Classic form.

So the Yankees are neither tanking nor sinking. They also don't have the fine fortune of playing in an emaciated division. The only force that beats the Yanks with any regularity these days is the biblical rain that seems to have engulfed our area for the last month, forcing MLB to scratch the game in the Bronx last night.

This is what we wanted, anyway. Beyond your provincial pride in the Bronx Bombers is the fact that they have to beat the best - most often Boston - in order to claw into October. Maybe their roles have been inverted; the Yankees looked condescendingly down at Boston for nearly a century, while the Red Sox have now leapfrogged the Yanks to become the 21st century club nonpareil, but the rivalry has been revived.

With the luxury tax and local cable deals sprouting like weeds around the MLB map, the Yankees are no longer preening above the sport, poaching every star from other teams. The field is as even as ever. And while the 1998 club may have been the best in Yankees history, there's nothing wrong with the furious fight of 1978. Both ended pretty well for the pinstripes. Perhaps, nothing prepares you for October like a three-way battle in September.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @JasonKeidel