When the Yankees began this week's series with the Rays, it appeared merely to be two heavyweight bruisers going about the business of tenderizing each other while waiting impatiently for the playoffs to start. Four days later, the picture is a very different one, and it particularly changed during Thursday night's seven-run sixth inning meltdown. It's no overstatement to say that the Yankees' odds of repeating as World Champions just got considerably longer.
As that fateful sixth inning started, the Yankees had top starter CC Sabathia on the mound protecting a 3-1 lead. Had he and the bullpen been able to convert that into a win, they'd have taken this week's series with the Rays 3-1 and secured a split of the season series at nine games apiece. More importantly, they would have held a 2.5-game lead in the division with nine games left to play. A 5-4 record the rest of the way would have required the Rays to go 8-2 to achieve a tie, though that still would have given the latter the division title based upon a better intra-division record.
Alas, Sabathia ran out of gas early and pitched his way into a mess, harming his own Cy Young chances in the process on a day when opposite number David Price and the Mariners' Felix Hernandez outpitched him by a country mile. On top of that, Joba Chamberlain drove a freight train full of dynamite into the raging fire. Javier Vazquez's own spectacular meltdown — a record-tying three hit batsmen in a row — an inning later was merely a sideshow which distracted from the ramifications of the previous frame. Because while the Yankees still hold a half-game lead over the Rays in the AL East, they've got the much tougher schedule of the two teams the rest of the way:
3 x Boston (.553 WPCT, 5-7 vs. NYY) in New York
3 x Toronto (.507, 8-7 vs. NYY) in Toronto
3 x Boston (.553, 5-7 vs. NYY) in Boston
3 x Seattle (.382, 1-5 vs. TBR) in Tampa Bay
3 x Baltimore (.401, 5-10 vs. TBR ) in Tampa Bay
4 x Kansas City (.414, 2-2 vs. TBR) in Kansas City
Talk about a gift from the scheduling gods! Ignoring home-field advantage for a moment, the weighted winning percentage of the Yankees' remaining opponents is .538, while that of the Rays is .401 — the equivalent of a 22-game difference between the two slates over the course of a 162-game season, or roughly the gap between the Red Sox and the Royals.
Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds, which factor home field advantage, scoring environment, run components and quality of opposition into a Monte Carlo simulation of the remainder of the season — BP colleague Tommy Bennett explained the complicated-sounding system very well a few weeks back — show the Yankees with a 38.4 percent chance of winning the division and the Rays with a 61.6 percent chance. A mere two days ago, those numbers stood 74.5 to 25.5 in New York's favor.
As if that weren't already bad enough, there's now another piranha in the tank, as the red-hot Twins have chewed through the rest of the league en route to a 16-4 record this month. They clinched the AL Central flag earlier this week and have momentarily secured the league's best record, and thus home field advantage throughout the Division Series and League Championship Series. With the Tigers (.507, 6-9 vs. the Twins), Royals (.414, 3-12 vs. the Twins) and Blue Jays (.507, 3-2 vs. the Twins) remaining on the schedule, the Twins' opponents the rest of the way have a weighted winning percentage of .479 — the equivalent of 10 games worse than the Yankees' opponents over the course of a full season. BP's odds actually place them with a higher average win total through the simulation than either AL East beast (97.5 to 97.3 for the Rays to 96.7 for the Yankees). However, it's important to remember that the odds don't know how safe the Twins will play it having wrapped up their spot. Joe Mauer hasn't played since September 19 due to knee inflammation, and he received a cortisone shot yesterday, meaning that he'll be out for at least a few more days. Expect manager Ron Gardenhire to give his other regulars some rest as well.
The Yankees can cling to the hope that the Twins will ease off the throttle, but barring a very hot finish, they're most likely to emerge as the AL Wild Card winners and thus lack the home field advantage in any round this October; at best, they'll be lucky to have the advantage in one series. And while the past 12 years — a line chosen to demarcate the point when the leagues went to seeding playoff teams in their current manner — have seen as many Wild Cards reach the World Series as teams with the league's best record (eight apiece), the numbers are still in favor of the team with the home field advantage; they've gone 45-39 (.536) in the postseason series over the past dozen years. The Twins, who would be the Yankees' first-round opponents if they wind up as the Wild Card, are an AL-best 52-25 at home. The Yankees, by comparison are 51-27, the Rays 46-29, the Rangers 48-26; there's not a pushover in the bunch when it comes down to that fateful extra game.
Now, somewhere there's somebody waving his hands frantically while claiming that the Yankees can let the Red Sox back into the playoff picture with these six games. There's a minute probability — BP's odds place it at 0.26 percent, or a 1-in-384 chance — of Boston swiping a playoff spot, but as they're seven and a half games back with 10 to play, they don't even have the means to make it happen by themselves even if they swept all six games against the Yankees. That theoretical chance doesn't even account for the fact that the Sox lineup now lacks Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Mike Cameron, all done for the year due to injuries. Without belittling the Bosox's collective penchant for staving off defeat — we've learned the hard way on that front — I'll tell you that you're better off worrying about alligators rising from the sewers of New York than of the threat they pose to blocking the Yanks out of the postseason.
Even so, the bottom line is that the Yankees are going to have to come up big if they want to claim the AL East and the league's best record. In that sense, their playoffs have already begun.